Paleolithic bones reveal evidence of ritualistic cannibalism

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Aug. 9 — Paleontologists have found evidence of ritualistic cannibalism among the remains of Stone Age humans recovered from Gough’s Cave in England.

Scientists first discovered the gnawed bones in 1987. But while scientists agreed the bones offered evidence of Paleolithic cannibalism, researchers couldn’t confirm whether some of the bone markings were ritualistic.

Researchers from London’s Natural History Museum recently reexamined the bones’ markings, revealing evidence of percussion, butchering, human teeth marks and ritualistic carving.

Until now, scientists weren’t sure what sort of behavior could account for the zig zag marks found on the human bones, which date to between 17,000 and 12,000 B.C. Researchers used electron scanning microscopes to image the markings and compare them to other artifacts from the same time period. Their comparisons proved the zig zag marks were carved purposefully.

Paleontologists shared the analysis this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

It’s not clear what the markings may have symbolized, but researchers are confident the carvings were done as part of a multistage ritualistic ceremony — a ceremony that culminated in cannibalism.

“The sequence of modifications performed on this bone suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations,” researcher Silvia Bello said in a news release. “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.”

Gough’s Cave has yielded one of the largest collections of Stone Age human remains in England. Scientists have previously found cups carved from human skulls.

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