New evidence from a cave in England shows that Stone Age residents living there 15,000 years ago ate their friends and relatives and then turned their skulls and bones into works of art. Were they adding insult to injury or honoring the dead in appreciation of a good, albeit grisly, meal?
“The sequence of modifications performed on this bone suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations. Although in previous analyses we have been able to suggest that cannibalism at Gough’s Cave was practiced as a symbolic ritual, this study provides the strongest evidence for this yet.”
Silvia Bello, Calleva Researcher at the Natural History Museum, describes in PLOS One what he and fellow researchers found in Gough’s Cave, a spectacular limestone cavern in Cheddar, Somerset, England. Measuring 115 meters (377 ft) deep and 3.4 km (2.12 mi) long, Gough’s Cave is famous for the remains of its human dwellers, including Cheddar Man, the oldest complete human skeleton in Britain, dating back to 7,150 BCE. The cave was found in the 1880s by Richard Cox Gough, who turned it into a show or tourist cave which was illuminated with an early electric lighting system in 1899.
Shoving the tourists aside, archeologists found Gough’s Cave to be filled with the butchered remains of large mammals, artifacts carved from their bones and human bones showing the telltale cuts and gouges indicating they were the victims of cannibals. The human bones dated back 14,700 years to a time when the climate warmed and the cave was inhabited by prehistoric nomadic hunter-gatherers.
Why did these hunter-gatherers with what seemed to be plenty of other things to eat consume fellow humans and why did some of the cuts on the bones seem to be more like art than the random gouges and bites from diners? That’s what Bello sought to answer when he and other researchers from the Natural History Museum took a closer look at the remains. They determined that a common zig-zag pattern found on many bones was an indication of ritualistic carving or artwork. They also determined that some of the skulls were cleaned and carved in a manner that indicates they were later used for cups.
Bello’s most unusual discovery in Gough’s Cave was that the victims of this cannibalistic cave culture were their own people, not enemies, intruders or unlucky wanderers from other tribes or caves.
“None of the remains seem to reveal any obvious signs of trauma, suggesting that the ‘consumed’ probably died of natural causes rather than a violent death. If this is the case, it is probable that the consumers and the consumed belonged to the same group.”
This practice is known as endocannibalism, which entails eating the flesh of humans after they have died a natural death as part of a ceremony and not for nourishment. While it has been seen in indigenous cultures in Peru and Brazil, this is the first evidence of the practice in Britain and Bello’s conclusion is that the entire process was an elaborate but gruesome funeral ritual.
“The sequence of the manipulations suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, implying a complex ritualistic funerary behaviour that has never before been recognized for the Palaeolithic period.”
I suppose I should have warned you not to read this before lunch. Sorry.