Engraved human bones shed light on ancient cannibalism ritual

Brittany A. Roston - Aug 10, 2017, 2:06pm CDT
Engraved human bones shed light on ancient cannibalism ritual

A newly published study details the ritualistic cannibalism that took place at various places in ancient Europe, the signs of which persist to this day in the form of etched human bones. The bones were recovered from, in this case, a cave in the UK. Researchers explain that unusual zig-zag markings on the bones weren’t the result of butchering, but rather were ‘intentional engraving’ performed after other ritualistic burial processes had been completed.

The bones that were studied as part of this research were recovered from the UK’s Gough’s Cave, where the corpses that were buried inside had been processed via the Magdalenian mortuary ritual. This was, by all accounts, a gruesome process that involved filleting edible flesh from the corpse, transforming the cranium into a skull-cup, and, it turns out, engraving the bones with markings.

The study explains that researchers noted a distinct series of zig-zag incisions marks on the bones, ones that were possibly the marks resulting from blades used to fillet meat from corpses. Though that was one possible explanation, the researchers couldn’t definitely say whether filleting resulted in the marks.

To determine the source, researchers analyzed more than 300 known filleting marks and then compared them with the zig-zag marks found on these bones. That led to the conclusion that the marks were deliberately engraved into the bones rather than resulting from the filleting process, adding another layer of complexity to the rituals.

The study goes on to explain that this kind of complex funerary ritual — the bone engraving — hasn’t previously been recognized for the Paleolithic period, making it a notable discovery. Questions about why the zig-zag engravings were made, though, as well as their purpose, remain unanswered. It is noted that these marks are similar to engravings found on other objects from other European sites dating around the same time period, indicating a possibly widespread funerary process or religious practice.


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