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Evidence found for cannibalistic Palaeolithic burial rituals

Engraved human bones found in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, show previously unrecognised ritualistic behaviour from the Palaeolithic period, say experts at the Natural History Museum in London.

Analysis on an engraved human bone from the archaeological site has confirmed that a cannibalistic burial process was ‘ritualistic’.

The use of human bones as raw material to produce utilitarian or symbolic tools is rare. Prior to the Mesolithic (~10,000 years before present), no human bones were thought to have been artistically decorated.

Scientists at The Natural History Museum, London and UCL have now compared more than 400 cut-marks and engravings on both human and non-human bones in a new study in PLOS ONE to confirm that at least one human bone from Gough’s Cave had been engraved.

This is further to previous studies of the bones, which confirmed cannibalistic behaviour and the modification of the human skulls into bowls (skull-cups).

Silvia Bello, Calleva Researcher at the Natural History Museum, says: “The engraved motif on the Gough’s Cave bone is similar to engravings observed in other Magdalenian European sites. However, what is exceptional in this case is the choice of raw material (human bone) and the cannibalistic context in which it was produced.

“The sequence of modifications performed on this bone suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations.

“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.”

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