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Engraved bones found at the Gough’s Cave: A. Horse rib. B.Hare tibia. C. ‘bâton percé’ made from reindeer antler. D. bâton percé made from reindeer antler

Prehistoric Britons Cannibalized Dead Relatives and Created Art with their Bones

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Paleontologists claim that ancient Britons ate their dead relatives before inscribing markings on their bones in spooky prehistoric rituals. Researchers came to this conclusion after examining human remains that were found in a prehistoric archaeological site in a cave in southern England.

Cheddar Cheese’s Capital Becomes Notorious for Cannibalism Too

Cheddar Gorge – from where the famous cheese takes its name – and the surrounding areas of Somerset in England are globally known for their delicious cheddar cheeses, especially those that are aged in caves of the area. As Seeker reports, however, Gough’s Cave, located in the gorge, has recently become world famous for its creepy history of cannibalism. Scientists from the Natural History Museum in London and University College London (UCL) compared hundreds of cut-marks found on both human and animal bones at Gough’s Cave. After they examined closely the engravings on a human bone, they concluded that cannibals ate their relatives and then performed ritualistic burials with the remains.

Scientists Are Positive the Cuts Are Engraving Marks Destined for Rituals

Seeker reports that the bone from the assemblage, a right radius (forearm), had been disarticulated, filleted, chewed and then marked with a zig-zag design, before it was finally broken to extract the bone marrow. The scientists don’t believe that the marks were created during the butchery process because they were spotted on a part of the bone with no muscle attachments. Instead, they are positive that the zig-zagging cuts are engraving marks, made exclusively for artistic or symbolic representation. Additionally, they believe that the marks could be the “narrative” of the dead’s life or possibly a memorial to how they lost their live.

Details of the engraving design on the human radius.

Details of the engraving design on the human radius. (Credit: Bello et al )

Silvia Bello, Calleva Researcher at the Natural History Museum, tells Seeker, “The remains have provided unequivocal evidence that the bodies were eaten, but the shaping of the skulls into skull cups and the engraving of the radius strongly suggest that this act [cannibalism] wasn’t for nutritional and survival reasons only, but it retains some ritualistic connotation. “ And adds, “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.”

Could Endocannibalism be the Case?

Some people might be speculating whether the specific practice could have been endocannibalism, thus eating the flesh of someone only after this person is dead. Various editions of endocannibalism have been noticed worldwide throughout history as Seeker reports, with the Amahuaca tribe of Peru being a major example as the specific tribe would grind human bones with corn, mix them with liquid, and drink the juice that would come out of the mix. So, could this be a long tradition of endocannibalism?

Experts don’t see any kind of link between the prehistoric Brits and the other practitioners of endocannibalism from around the world. Despite scientists having previously traced clear evidence of cannibalism among Neanderthals (some going back 13,000 years), the researchers still don’t see a connection to the activities of Gough’s Cave. Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London and a colleague of Silvia Bello, shares his views on the matter, “These Gough’s people were separated by more than 20,000 years from the last Neanderthals and the first modern-looking humans in Europe, so it’s unlikely to be the continuity of a tradition,” he tells Seeker. And continued, “I think these traditions probably developed independently of each other.”

Details of the incisions on the engraved human bone.

Details of the incisions on the engraved human bone. (Credit: Bello et al )

Symbolism Behind the Zig-Zag Patterns?

According to Bello the zig-zag symbolism was not uncommon during that period. For that matter, many lissoirs (bone tools used to smooth hides) have been found at sites dated to the Magdalenian period (17,000–12,000 years ago) in modern-day France which are carved with identical artistic motifs. Bello and her colleagues suggest that the arm bone engraving was very significant for those people, “The act of engraving has often been associated with ways of remembering events, places or circumstances — a sort of extension of our memory outside our body. In this case, however, the engraving of this bone may have been a sort of memory more directly related to the deceased, and an intrinsic part of the cannibalistic ritual itself,” she tells Seeker, even though she is not confident that the engraving’s exact meaning will ever be fully explained or understood. Bello and her team are currently conducting DNA research on some of the excavated prehistoric human bones, while for those of you who are curious to know more, their research has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Top image: Engraved bones found at the Gough’s Cave: A. Horse rib. B.Hare tibia. C. ‘ bâton percé’ made from reindeer antler. D. bâton percé made from reindeer antler (Credit: Bello et al

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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