A zigzag pattern engraved on a human arm bone, estimated to be about 15,000 years old, that was was found in Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England. Researchers said the engraving suggested ritualized cannibalism.
When Silvia Bello gives lectures about cannibalism, she starts by asking her audience to imagine a cannibal. “Normally, people think of Hannibal Lecter or something that’s disturbing,” said Dr. Bello, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London.
But archaeological evidence suggests that most cannibalism in human history was not the work of serial killers. Instead, it occurred for complex and varied reasons. Thousands of years ago in Britain, for example, people seem to have eaten their own kind as part of an intricate funeral custom that combined both nutrition and ritual.
At an archaeological site called Gough’s Cave, in southwestern England, human bones that are approximately 15,000 years old bear unmistakable signs of cannibalism, like butchering marks and human tooth imprints that suggest even the ends of toe and rib bones were gnawed to get at every last bit of grease and marrow. But the bones also seem to have been used in cultural traditions. In a paper published in PLOS One on Wednesday, Dr. Bello and her colleagues report what appears to have been a purposeful engraving of a zigzag pattern on a human arm bone, an indication of ritual.
Previously, Dr. Bello and others described what seemed to be drinking vessels made from skulls among the site’s human remains. Together, the skull-cups and arm bone engraving paint the richest, most unambiguous picture yet of early ritualistic cannibalism, said James Cole, an archaeology lecturer at the University of Brighton in Britain, who was not involved in the research.
In the latest study, Dr. Bello and her colleagues compared the incisions on the arm bone in question with hundreds of butchering marks on human and animal bones from Gough’s Cave, as well as engravings on animal bones from the cave and other archaeological sites.
The cut marks on the arm bone were unlike butchering incisions, the researchers found. It seemed that whoever made the marks deliberately sawed the bone back and forth to make the marks deeper, wider and more visible. In contrast, when taking meat off a bone, one typically wants to minimize the number of cuts, since repeated scraping against bone makes one’s blade (in this case, a stone tool) blunt, Dr. Bello said.
The zigzag design on the arm bone matched patterns on engraved animal bones found in France from the same period, suggesting it was a common motif during that time.
Because heaps of animal remains were also found in Gough’s Cave, the researchers suspect that people back then were not starving and eating humans for survival. There were also no obvious signs of injury on the human remains. That “would suggest that people died from natural causes and were then eaten,” Dr. Bello said.
It’s possible that people practiced cannibalism as a way to dispose of, or even honor, the dead. In this context, engraving the bone might have been a way to extend a memory of the deceased before the body was broken down and eaten, though this is just speculation, Dr. Bello said.
In fact, we may never know what people who lived that long ago were thinking, said Pat Shipman, an adjunct anthropology professor at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the study. What’s clear, though, is that such things as how we treat the dead and what we deem acceptable to eat have constantly shifted through history.
Studies like this enlarge our understanding of our own species, she said, showing us that “there’s a lot more variability in human cultures, and cultural behavior, than we might think.”
(The New York Times)