A research team from the Natural History Museum in London team has found evidence of ritual cannibalism on 15,000-year-old skeletal remains. The study focused on a single bone, a radius (the large bone of the forearm) that was unearthed in 1987 from Gough’s Cave, a limestone cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwestern England, which has one the greatest numbers of human skeletal remains from the Magdalenian period (ca. 17,000–12,000 years before the present). Examination of the bone and microscopic analysis of bone biopsy samples revealed cut marks, damage from percussive force and engraved incisions. It’s the last of these that suggest a ritual component to the cannibalistic practices of the Upper Paleolithic inhabitants of Cheddar Gorge.
Evidence of nutritional cannibalism has been found on other bones in Gough’s Cave — butchering and tooth marks on ribs and even toe bones — and human crania cut for use as skull cups have also been discovered, but the patterned incisions on the radius are the first intentional engravings identified on the cave’s Ice Age human remains. Microscopic analysis makes clear that the incisions are distinct from the slicing marks left by butchering and comparison with more than 400 other cut marks on bones, human and animal, discovered in Gough’s Cave.
By careful three-dimensional analysis of the microscopic characteristics of each mark, such as its depth and the angle of incision, they distinguished between marks made for butchery purposes and those made for engraving.
The results suggest that bones had been cleaned of their muscle and tendons, before being roughly engraved in one sitting by a single individual, using one tool.
Since breaks in the bones run across the engraving, the bones must have been broken to extract the marrow after the engraving had been made.
“The sequence of the manipulations strongly suggests that the engraving was an intrinsic part of the multi-stage cannibalistic ritual and, as such, the marks must have held a symbolic connotation,” says [the study’s lead author Dr. Silvio] Bello.
The incisions were made in linear, zig-zag patterns that have been seen before in Magdalenian contexts. Animal bones this period found in France have similar engravings, and multiple animals bones in Gough’s Cave are also engraved with the zig-zag incisions. The patterns engraved on the radius bone, however, are the first on a human bone ever found at a Paleolithic site. In fact, it is the earliest known example of an incised human bone, period.
As for what the symbolic purpose of these engravings may have been, there is no way to determine that. It could have been purely artistic, but the inextricable association with the butchering and eating of the dead suggests a more complex motivation.
“Archaeologists have linked the engraving of objects and tools to ways of remembering events, places or circumstances, a sort of ‘written memory’ and ‘symbolic glue’ that held together complex social groups.
“Perhaps the engraving of this bone may have told a sort of story, more related to the deceased than the surrounding landscape. It could be that they are indicative of the individual, events from their life, the way they died, or the cannibalistic ritual itself.”
The study has been published in the journal PLOS One and can be read free of charge here.