Toward the end of the last ice age, hunter-gatherers briefly occupied a cave in Britain. This was some 14,700 years ago. The cave community butchered and ate horses, deer — and at least six people.
The cannibalism took place in what’s now called Gough’s Cave. It was part of some burial rite, reports a team of anthropologists who have studied the area.
Three adults, two teens and a 3-year-old made up the cannibalized dead. Microscopic analyses show they were butchered much like the wild animals found in the same cave. The cave is located in Cheddar, England.
Human tooth marks appear on human ribs and other lower-body bones. Those marks are consistent with chewing. The bones also show cut marks left by stone tools. Limb and other bones show evidence of being broken with pounding stones, the researchers say. Details appeared April 15 in the Journal of Human Evolution.
Silvia Bello works at the Natural History Museum in London, England. As a biological anthropologist, she studies bones and teeth to understand ancient human behavior. In 2011, she led a team that found the top parts of three human skulls at Gough’s Cave. Those bones had been formed into drinking cups. Together, her team now concludes, those skull cups and the gnawed bones suggest cannibalism played a part in the ritual treatment of the dead.
“This is possibly the clearest known archaeological example of ritualistic cannibalism,” she says.
Strongest signs of Stone Age cannibalism
Bello’s team plans to conduct microscopic studies of scattered human bones from other European sites. Like Gough’s Cave, these sites also were occupied by people belonging to what is known as the Magdalenian (MAG-duh-LAIN-ee-un) culture. These late Stone Age humans occupied Western Europe between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago.
Human bones at other sites also bear stone-tool marks. They too had been pounded into pieces. Some researchers have argued that these finds are leftovers of cannibalistic practices. Others argue that it’s more likely that the victims’ flesh wasn’t eaten. Instead, people might have removed the flesh and then buried the bones.
But the bones from Gough’s cave show signs of having been eaten. These include signs of chewing. That provides “compelling evidence for exhaustive butchery and cannibalism of at least six individuals,” says archaeologist Paul Pettitt. He works at Durham University in England and did not take part in the new study.
The human remains at Gough’s cave date to a time when the local climate was shifting from mild to cold. Animal prey and edible plants may have become scarce. If so, hunger may have partially inspired cannibalistic burial rituals, Pettitt suggests.
Gough’s Cave was discovered in the 1880s. Several excavations have been conducted there over the years. The latest took place from 1986 to 1992. Besides human and animal bones, the digging uncovered stone, bone, antler and ivory artifacts. All are typical of the Magdalenian culture.
Bello’s team studied the entire collection of Magdalenian-era human bones from Gough’s Cave. The haul includes 37 skull pieces, four jaw fragments and 164 lower-body fossils.
The scientists studied the bones under a microscope. Then they produced 3-D digital models of tool and tooth marks. Signs of human chewing appeared on 87 lower-body bones. A majority of lower-body bones also contained cut marks characteristic of butchery. And nearly one-third of lower-body bones displayed pounding damage. That pounding would have allowed removal of the fatty marrow inside a bone.
The grisly ritual apparently didn’t have a long history at Gough’s Cave. Radiocarbon dating indicates cannibals occupied the site for just two or three generations.
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anthropology The study of humankind. A social scientist who studies different societies and cultures is called an anthropologist.
archaeology (adj. archeological) The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
cannibal A person or animal that eats members of its own species.
climate The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.
climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
evolution A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the conditions in which it developed.
generation A group of individuals born about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet -are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans.
hunter-gather A cultural group that feeds itself through hunting, fishing and gathering wild produce (such as nuts, seeds, fruits, leaves, roots and other edible plant parts). They can be somewhat nomadic and do not rely on agriculture for their foodstuffs.
ice age Earth has experienced at least five major ice ages, which are prolonged periods of unusually cold weather experienced by much of the planet. During that time, which can last hundreds to thousands of years, glaciers and ice sheets expand in size and depth. The most recent ice age peaked 21,500 years ago, but continued until about 13,000 years ago.
microscope An instrument used to view objects, like bacteria, or the single cells of plants or animals, that are too small to be visible to the unaided eye.
microscopic An adjective for things too small to be seen by the unaided eye. It takes a microscope to view such tiny objects, such as bacteria or other one-celled organisms.
radiocarbon dating A process to determine the age of material from a once-living object. It is based on comparing the relative proportion, or share, of the carbon-12 to carbon-14. This ratio changes as radioactive carbon-14 decays and is not replaced.
Stone Age A prehistoric period, lasting millions of years and ending tens of thousands of years ago, when weapons and tools were made of stone or of materials such as bone, wood or horn.