Cannibalism was common long ago, says study: ScienceAlert

The rituals with which we humans bid farewell to our dead vary from time to time and place to place. But while a funeral custom is probably relatively rare, it seems it is more widespread than we thought.

A new analysis of Paleolithic human remains across Northern Europe shows that cannibalism was a common cultural practice, practiced across a much larger geography than previously recognized.

The people of this time period in Europe, about 15,000 years ago, lived in what is known as the Magdalenian culture, and new findings indicate that cannibalism was a widespread Magdalenian funerary practice.

“Instead of burying their dead, these people were eating them,” explains paleontologist Sylvia Bello of the Natural History Museum in London.

“We interpret the evidence that cannibalism was practiced on several occasions over a short period of time in north-western Europe as that the practice was part of a wider funerary behavior among Magdalenian groups. This is interesting in itself, because This is the oldest evidence of cannibalism as a funerary practice.”

skull cup
A human skull from Gough’s Cave was deliberately shaped into a cup or bowl after peeling. (Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)

Although time has wreaked havoc on much of humanity’s history, the Magdalenian culture has left a fairly rich record of their art and technology – the stone and bone artifacts with which they worked and beautified their lives. We also have many of their bones, preserved for millennia.

We do not have a particularly good understanding of their funerary practices. Archaeologists have collected indications that these practices may have been quite different from those of today; In particular, bones from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge – yes, home of the famous Cheddar Man – show evidence of cannibalism.

Cannibalism is considered rare for humans. But other Magdalenian assemblages, Bello and fellow archaeologist William Marsh of the Natural History Museum note, show possible signs of it, suggesting that Gough’s Cave may not have been something of a strange outlier.

The pair investigated the topic thoroughly, reviewing published literature to look for evidence of cannibalism throughout Europe. This did not just mean Magdalenian. Europe was home to two distinct cultures during the Upper Paleolithic. The Magdalenians scattered to the north-west. The south-east was home to the Epigravetians.

Bellow and Marsh studied 59 sites, both Magdalenian and Epigravettian. They found evidence of funerary practices at 25 of these sites. At 10 of those sites, it appears that the dead were buried, and then left alone to rest.

But at 13 sites, human bones found signs of postmortem manipulation – cuts and teeth marks for butchering, eating and using the bones as tools and utensils, such as cups or bowls made from human skulls. Evidence of both burial and cannibalism was found at the remaining two sites.

bone marks
Marks on Magdalenian human bones are consistent with deliberate processing. (Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)

Interestingly, all evidence of cannibalism was found in Magdalenian sites.

“The fact that we find that cannibalism is often carried out on multiple occasions in a short period of time, in a fairly local area and only by individuals attributed to the Magdalenian culture, means that we believe that this behavior is typical of the Magdalenian , and so it was a fun treat in itself,” says Marsh.

The team also conducted genetic analysis on the bones associated with these funerary rites. They found that the culture that buried their dead – the Epigravetians – was genetically distinct from the culture that ate them, the Magdalenians. Evidence also suggests that the Epigravettian culture lasted several thousand years longer than the Magdalenian. And burial became the principal means of dealing with the dead.

Magdalenian Skull Cup
Magdalenian skull cups from Gough’s Cave (left) in England and Courbet Cave (right) in France. (Marsh & Bello, quot. Science Rev., 2023)

All together this suggests that rather than the two cultures merging, a set of cultural practices became more acceptable, with the Epigravetians replacing the Magdalenians.

“At this time, during the last period of the Paleolithic, you really see a change in both genetic lineage and funerary behavior. The lineage and funerary behavior associated with the Magdalenian are replaced by the lineage and funerary behavior associated with the Epigravettian, which “There is a sign of population replacement as Epigravettian groups moved into north-western Europe,” explains Marsh.

“We believe that rather than being an example of intercultural diffusion, the changes in funerary behavior identified are an example of detrital diffusion where essentially one population comes in and replaces another population.”

Marsh and Bello say further research will be needed to understand this horrific burial practice.

Research has been published in quaternary science reviews,

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