Glaciers covered much of Europe around 20,000 years ago. But that was their peak, called the Last Glacial Maximum. After that, they began retreating and Europe began warming. Humans exploited this change, spreading north into places previously covered by ice. It seemed that things were looking up for Homo sapiens. Despite this, cannibalism made a comeback.
Eating people was previously popular way before the LGM. The Neanderthals, in particular, seem to have been big fans. But evidence of modern human cannibalism was relatively rare and debatable. Even during the peak of the LGM people seemed to refrain from eating each other. And yet when the ice began to disappear and everything seemed to be going well that all changed.
The people living in Western Europe after the ice began to retreat are called the “Magdalenian.” They get their name from a French cave called Abri de la Madeleine, where they were first found. The Magdalenian people were pioneers. And I’m not just talking about starting the “eating people” trend. They began refining microlithic tools, which allowed them to create lightweight yet deadly weapons. They were also likely the group that domesticated dogs.
As well as being technological (and dog) pioneers, they also conquered new land. The retreating ice allowed them to spread further into Northern Europe than anyone else for generations. And that’s where things get interesting.
Gough’s Cave is an old Magdalenian site in the walls of Cheddar Gorge. Yes, that’s where the cheese comes from. However, the Magdalenian people preferred a different dish. Archaeologists have excavated more than 200 human bones from the site. This represents at least 5 different individuals. All seem to have come from a couple of generations of occupation around 14,000 years ago. This coincides with a period of rapid warming, when people began hunting red deer and horses in the Gorge.
Those deer and horses were caught, killed, and eaten. Their bones display the tell tale cut marks of butchery. The skeleton was cut into pieces, meat sliced off, and the bones were broken to suck out the juicy marrow. And as you may have already guessed, the human remains in the cave show the exact same pattern. Skeletons pulled apart, flesh sliced off, and marrow sucked out. If you needed any more proof of cannibalism, some of the bones have even been chewed.
Ruling out Ritual
All of this seems rather horrific. Particularly when you take into account the fact that one of those eaten was a child. Likely less than 4 years old. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they took extra care with the skull. In a very bad way. The head was cut off, ears sliced away, and eyeballs snipped out. All to allow the top of the skull to be precisely cut and smoothed into a cup. But things might not be as grim as they seem.
Secondary burials are fairly common. This is when a body is exhumed and then reburied, displayed, or used in a ritual. My favourite examples are from Jericho. In this early city, the dead were buried under houses. After a while, they were excavated and reconstructed. Plaster was used to make the skin, shells used as eyes. Then they were displayed in the homes of their relatives.
Could some of the damage seen at Gough’s Cave be part of a similar secondary burial? Granted, some of the damage is clearly cannibalistic (like bite marks), but it might all represent some sort of ritualistic modification that occurred after death. Perhaps eating the dead (and drinking from their skulls) was a sign of respect.
Certainly, there has been damage seen at other Magdalenian sites that have been interpreted this way. Skulls with cut damage have been found throughout France. This sort of damage has almost always been linked to rituals and secondary burials. Particularly given that there’s no evidence of trauma and only human heads were treated this way. If the skull was so tasty, why not eat animal heads too?
Was cannibalism common?
It might be possible to come up with some reasonable explanation for some of the damage seen at Gough’s Cave. But the fact remains there was some clear cannibalism going on. It doesn’t get much more obvious than bite marks on the bone. Apart from being eaten, these skeletons don’t show many signs of trauma; which would suggest that this cannibalism is part of a funerary practice. But how common was it?
The tell tale signs from Gough’s Cave include the bite marks, but also the numerous cuts on the bone, crushing for marrow, and the fact the skeleton was cut into little pieces. Skull cups and chewing seem to be rare, but there’s a disturbing number of instances of the others. In fact, only 3% of Magdalenian burials are complete, primary burials that haven’t been disturbed (or chewed on).
However, few of those other burials show as clear evidence for cannibalism as Gough’s Cave. In the face of such ambiguous evidence, it’s hard to say if cannibalism was really that common. Recent re-analysis of Gough’s Cave has identified some unique trends in the bones that might be clear indicators of cannibalism.
With this improved way to identify cannibalism, it’s only a matter of time before we figure out how much the Magdalenian people like human flesh. Regardless, it’s still clear they liked to play with their dead. The sheer number of secondary burials is evidence of that. This raises countless questions about these early Europeans’ lives.
Perhaps the answer to some of them will be “because they like to eat people”.
Bello, S.M., Parfitt, S.A. and Stringer, C.B., 2011. Earliest directly-dated human skull-cups. PLoS One, 6(2), p.e17026.
Bello, S.M., Saladié, P., Cáceres, I., Rodríguez-Hidalgo, A. and Parfitt, S.A., 2015. Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK): The human remains from head to toe. Journal of human evolution, 82, pp.170-189.
Bello, S.M., Wallduck, R., Dimitrijević, V., Živaljević, I. and Stringer, C.B., 2016. Cannibalism versus funerary defleshing and disarticulation after a period of decay: comparisons of bone modifications from four prehistoric sites. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Boudadi-Maligne, M., Mallye, J.B., Langlais, M. and Barshay-Szmidt, C., 2012. Magdalenian dog remains from Le Morin rock-shelter (Gironde, France). Socio-economic implications of a zootechnical innovation. PALEO. Revue d’archéologie préhistorique, (23), pp.39-54.
Jacobi, R. and Higham, T., 2010. The Later Upper Palaeolithic recolonisation of Britain: new results from AMS radiocarbon dating. The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain, Developments in Quaternary Science, 14, pp.223-247.