Gruesome discovery reveals grim practice at Stone Age funerals | Tech News

Gough’s Cave is a geological marvel – and the site of some grisly goings on (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)

Ancient humans ate the dead as a funerary practice, not due to hunger – until they were wiped out, new research suggests.

Evidence of cannibalism has been found at a number of sites in northern Europe, including in Gough’s Cave, a renowned paleolithic site in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. Archaeologists have previously found 15,000-year-old skulls thought to have been fashioned into cups in the cave, alongside bones chewed on by humans.

However, it was not known whether this cannibalism at the time was by choice or out of necessity – or how far it spread across Europe.

But a study by researchers from the Natural History Museum suggests the practice was part of a funerary ritual, given there is strong evidence that the same people were also hunting and eating other animals, such as deer and horses.

In addition, the time and effort put into the manipulation of human bones shows thought was being put into the practice, suggesting a ritual.

‘Instead of burying their dead, these people were eating them,’ said co-author Dr Silvia Bello.

Human remains from across north-western Europe indicate that cannibalism was a funerary practice (Picture: Derek Adams)

‘We interpret the evidence that cannibalism was practised on multiple occasions across north-western Europe over a short period of time.

‘That in itself is interesting, because it is the oldest evidence of cannibalism as a funerary practice.’

To determine exactly who was involved in the cannibalism, Dr Bello, alongside lead author William Marsh, assessed 59 sites across Europe home to Stone Age human remains. They found 13 showed evidence of cannibalism, ten of burial and two a combination.

The team used DNA analysis to determine which groups of people were engaging in which practice, and found a clear difference between those engaging in cannibalism and those burying their dead.

The Magdalenian people, found in northern and western Europe, had been separated from their eastern relatives the Epigravettian people by the Ice Age, who lived across Italy and the Balkans. Over time, the two became genetically distinct. 

Red squares mark areas where evidence of cannibalism has been found (Picture: Natural History Museum)

One group, the Magdalenian, went on to develop the practice of eating the dead, while the Epigravettian went down the burial route. 

‘The fact that we find cannibalism being practised often on multiple occasions in over a short period of time, in a fairly localised area and solely by individuals attributed to the Magdalenian culture, means we believe this behaviour was one that was performed widely by the Magdalenian, and was therefore a funerary behaviour in itself,’ said Mr Marsh.

Archaeologists had also pondered whether cannibalistic rituals simply fell out of favour with ancient humans as ideas spread, but the DNA analysis suggests they died out. As the Ice Age ended around 11,500 years ago, Epigravettian people replaced the Magdalenian, and with it, their grisly funerary practices.

‘At this time, during the terminal period of the Palaeolithic, you actually see a turnover in both genetic ancestry and funerary behaviour,’ said Mr Marsh.

‘The Magdalenian associated ancestry and funerary behaviour is replaced by Epigravettian associated ancestry and funerary behaviour, indicative of population replacement as Epigravettian groups migrated into north-western Europe.

‘We believe that rather than being an example of transcultural diffusion, the change in funerary behaviour identified is an example of demic diffusion where essentially one population comes in and replaces the other population.’

The study is published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

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