It has long been known that the early humans who inhabited Gough’s Cave, Somerset, around 15,000 years ago practised cannibalism and modified certain human remains (such as turning skulls into cups for possibly ceremonial purposes). Now a newly published study focusing on an arm bone from the same assemblage has described evidence for what may be further ritual activity.
The Gough’s Cave bones represent one of the largest groups of human remains associated with the Magdalenian culture (who lived c.17,000-12,000 years ago – see CA 330). They comprise the remains of at least six individuals – a child of around three years old, a young adolescent (aged around 12-14), an older adolescent (around 14-16), and three adults, one of whom was more elderly – and all show extensive evidence for cannibalism. Some 65 per cent of the bones bear clear butchery marks testifying to disarticulation, scalping, and the filleting of soft tissues, while 42 per cent preserve human toothmarks.
What is less clear is why these acts were carried out. It has previously been suggested that this could be the desperate last resort of a community in the grips of starvation or – with reference to the enigmatic ‘skull cups’ – that the remains could have been eaten for symbolic reasons, perhaps as part of some kind of funerary rite.
The new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, argues for the latter interpretation. Researchers – from the Natural History Museum in London and UCL – examined a human arm bone (a right radius), which had been deliberately carved with a zig-zag pattern of incisions. The arm had been cannibalised – the bone was cracked open to access the marrow, and is marked by human teeth – but it comes from a part of the arm without muscle attachments, meaning that the incisions are unlikely to be related to filleting, the team comments. Rather, having compared the cuts with 332 butchery marks on human and non-human remains, as well as with incisions on two engraved artefacts from Gough’s Cave (a horse rib and a hare tibia), they concluded that the zig-zags were more likely artistic than having to do with preparing the limb for consumption.
Most strikingly, however, the decorative pattern seems to have been applied in the middle of this process: the break where the bone was snapped to extract marrow cuts across the zig-zag. It seems that the arm’s flesh had been removed, but then the butchery was paused while someone engraved the bone, and only then was it broken to get at its contents.
‘The sequence of the manipulation can only imply that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic ritual at the site, with the act of engraving itself as significant as the finished motif, suggesting a complex funerary cannibalistic behaviour that has never been recognised before for the Palaeolithic period,’ the team writes.
The full research paper can be accessed for free at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182127.
This article was published in CA 331.