Cannibalism Might Have Been Common In Prehistoric Britain

Human Bones

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A new analysis suggests that cannibalism — humans eating other humans — was relatively commonplace in prehistoric England.The study “Upper Palaeolithic Ritualistic Cannibalism: Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK) From Head to Toe,” presented at the 2012 European Society for the Study of Human Evolution meeting, studied 14,700-year-old human bones from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England. The bones show signs of defleshing using stone tools, then toothmarks to nibble at the bones.

Researchers from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution developed new criteria to identify human tooth marks on bone. The human bones from the cave show evidence of gnawing. Most of the bones bear tooth marks, except for the skull. The cannibals preserved the top of the skull and used them as drinking cups.

A large number of animal remains suggest that cannibalism was not necessary for survival in an emergency, instead, evidence suggests the cannibalism could have been ritualistic. Great care taken to the top of skulls: They were thoroughly defleshed, and the edges were shaped to produce a cup.

This behaviour is also indicated in Australian aborigines, who used the skull cups everyday and knew exactly who the cup came from.

Scientific American’s Kate Wong was at the meeting, and where presenter Silvia Bello presented her data:

Instead, she argues that processing of the human body was a tradition—people at Gough’s ate the bodies of their fellow humans for nutrition rather than letting good meat go to waste, and then produced the skull cups for ritual. In fact, Bello suspects that, given the practical benefits, cannibalism was relatively common in the past.

With this new method of identifying gnaw marks, researchers may find more evidence of cannibalism in the fossil record, possibly proving Bello’s suspicion.

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