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Our Human Ancestors Were Cannibals?

Apr 16, 2015 02:34 PM EDT
skull bowl

(Photo : The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)

New research suggests that some of our human ancestors may have been cannibals.

At least, that's according to findings published in the Journal of Human Evolution, which details how an analysis of ancient cadavers recovered at a famous archaeological site confirm the existence of a sophisticated culture that butchered and carved human remains.

The site, Gough's Cave in Somerset, England, was first discovered in the 1880s and excavated by archaeologists until 1992. Yet, in the decades since, scientists have continued to study the human bones found from the site, providing new insights into our ancestors.

For example, new radiocarbon techniques have revealed remains that were deposited over a very short period of time, possibly during a series of seasonal occupations, about 14,700 years ago.

"The human remains have been the subject of several studies. In a previous analysis, we could determine that the cranial remains had been carefully modified to make skull-cups," Dr. Silvia Bello, from the Natural History Museum, who led the study, said in a news release. "During this research, however, we've identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier. We've found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow."

The fact that human tooth marks were discovered on many of the bones provides undeniable evidence for cannibalism among this group of human ancestors.

Interestingly, the treatment of the human corpses and manufacture and use of skull-cups at Gough's Cave is not unique to the site, and has parallels with other ancient sites in central and western Europe as well. However, the new findings suggest that cannibalism during the "Magdalenian period" was part of a routine mortuary practice that combined intensive processing and consumption of the bodies with the ritual use of skull-cups.

"A recurring theme of this period is the remarkable rarity of burials and how commonly we find human remains mixed with occupation waste at many sites," added researcher Simon Parfitt. "Further analysis along the lines used to study Gough's Cave will help to establish whether the type of ritualistic cannibalism practiced there is a regional ('Creswellian') phenomenon, or a more widespread practice found throughout the Magdalenian world."

As mentioned, this not the first evidence to suggest that our human ancestors had cannibalistic tendencies. Scientists recently found that Neanderthals used to beat up their deceased brethren by cutting, beating and fracturing their bones, implying that these hominids could have been cannibals - though that theory is unlikely.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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