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New Analysis Indicates Early Britons Engaged in Ritualistic Cannibalism

A zigzag pattern on an arm bone indicates around 15,000 years ago, humans in Britain may have consumed others as part of a funeral rite

The engraved bones found in Gough's Cave (Bello et al )
smithsonian.com

In the 1980s, researchers exploring the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England, found something incredible inside Gough’s Cave. No, it wasn’t a delicious wheel of ancient cheese; it was the remains of a three-year-old, two adolescents and at least two adults that appeared to have been eaten by humans some 15,000 years ago. Now, Hannah Devlin at The Guardian reports a study of engravings on the bones suggest they may have been butchered as part of a ritual.

According to Devlin, researchers weren’t sure why the ancient Britons ate their companions. Some suggested it was part of a sacred rite while others thought it might have been a desperate act of starving people. About 40 percent of the human bones found in the cave have bite marks on them, while 60 percent show some signs of butchery activities.

Steph Yin at The New York Times reports that after taking a closer look at some of the marks on a bone from a right forearm, the researchers found that they were much deeper and wider than the butchering cuts, and also made a zigzag pattern. That, along with skulls that appear to have been fashioned into drinking cups which were previously discovered at the site, indicates that cannibalism was part of ritual.

It’s likely that ritual wasn’t actually violent. Jen Viegas at Seeker explains that none of the bones recovered showed signs of injury, meaning the practice could have been part of funeral rite known as endocannibalism. “None of the remains seem to reveal any obvious signs of trauma,” Silvia Bello, lead author of the study in the journal PLOS One tells Viegas. “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.”

In fact, Bello tells Hannah Osborne at Newsweek that after eating the flesh, the living paused to ritually engrave the bones before cracking them open to eat the marrow. While it’s currently impossible to figure out the motive for such cannibalism, Bello says that eating a loved one might have been a way to try and transfer their knowledge or extend the memory of them.

That’s not to say eating the bodies was just for show. Devlin reports that while the skulls did not show many bite marks, the toe and finger bones found were pretty chewed up, indicating that the cannibals were at least a little hungry. There are not signs that the bones were ever cooked over a fire, so it’s likely they were either consumed raw or boiled. “It’s something that we find horrifying, but … that was their tradition,” Bello tells Devlin. “Like we incinerate bodies or put them in the ground. It was their way of disposing of bodies, like it or not.”

Osborne reports that similar zigzag cut marks have been found on animal bones and tools in France and cannibalism has been found in other parts of Europe. The team plans continue research into cannibalism rituals. They also hope to extract DNA from the Gough bones to try and establish if the people living there were related to other prehistoric groups in Europe.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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