Did our ancient ancestors eat their dead?
One of the most impressive sights in the West of England is Cheddar Gorge, part of the Mendip Hills south of Bristol. Carved out by glacial meltwater during the last Ice Age, the limestone cliffs form England’s deepest natural canyon. In places they tower 138 metres above the twisting B3135 road through the gorge. Described as one of the most exciting drives (or cycle routes) in England, the stretch of road through the gorge itself is 6.5 km long and drops 150 metres with a gradient of up to 16%. For motorists, the drive is impressive in both directions, while keen cyclists might like to know that the challenging climb formed part of the 2011 Tour of Britain.
The name of Cheddar is of course famous for cheese, although in fact this is now mainly produced elsewhere. But it was once stored and matured inside the large natural caves found in the gorge. The largest, Gough’s Cave, was discovered in the 1880’s and excavations have shown that people lived here for thousands of years. In 1903 Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton was found in the cave. Known as Cheddar Man, the remains dated to the Mesolithic Era around 7,000 BC.
However, new research published last week (09/08/2017) in the American scientific journal PLOS ONE reveals surprising new information about earlier cave dwellers who lived here 15,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that they may have cut up and eaten their dead, and then inscribed markings on their bones. Scientists from the Natural History Museum and University College in London examined hundreds of human and animal bones found at Gough’s Cave. As expected, some were the bones of butchered animals, but they also found that some of the human remains were marked by “slicing cut marks, percussion damage and human tooth marks.”
“The human remains … show clear signs of butchery … Cut-marked bones at Gough’s Cave include cuts made during disarticulation, scalping, and filleting of soft tissues … The cut-marks suggest that cutting occurred soon after the death of the individual … It is therefore probable that cannibalism at Gough’s Cave took place as part of a mortuary ritual that combined the intensive processing of entire corpses to extract edible tissues (i.e. bone marrow) and the modification of skulls to produce skull-cups”.
The research also revealed a set of zig-zagging incisions and the scientists conclude that these “were undoubtedly engraving marks, produced with no utilitarian purpose but purely for artistic or symbolic representation”. In other words, it was part of a ritual or ceremony to mark the person’s passing, and one theory is that the marks may represent details of the victim’s life or a memorial to how they died.
Silvia Bello, a scientist at the Natural History Museum and part of the research team, told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph: “The engraved motif on the Gough’s Cave bone is similar to engravings observed in other Magdalenian [i.e. later cultures of the Upper Paleolithic age] European sites. However, what is exceptional in this case is the choice of human bone and the cannibalistic context in which it was produced”.
The American PLOS One (Public Library of Science) is a journal publishing open access academic articles. Their website states “PLOS applies the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license to works we publish … Under this license, authors agree to make articles legally available for reuse, without permission or fees, for virtually any purpose. Anyone may copy, distribute, or reuse these articles, as long as the author and original source are properly cited.
The complete research article “An Upper Palaeolithic engraved human bone associated with ritualistic cannibalism” by Silvia M. Bello, Rosalind Wallduck, Simon A. Parfitt and Chris B. Stringer can be found here:
Text Alun Harvey