While today people tend to bury or cremate their dead, it seems our ancestors did things a little differently.
Researchers say the Magdalenians, an early hunter-gatherer culture spread throughout Europe, ate their loved ones simply to dispose of their bodies.
Experts analyzed bones that were discovered at almost 60 sites across Europe, including Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.
The presence of human bite marks reveals that cannibalism was “a common burial practice,” so it was not because they needed the meat to survive.
Gough’s Cave is famous for housing the oldest complete skeleton in Britain, dating back around 10,000 years, called “Cheddar Man”.
Caps from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England and Courbett Cave in the south of France.
The ancient Magdalenians
The Magdalenian is one of the later Upper Paleolithic cultures in Western Europe, dating from about 17,000 to 12,000 years ago.
It is named after the type site of La Madeleine, a rock shelter located in the Vézère Valley, Tursac commune, in the Dordogne department, France.
The culture was geographically widespread and Magdalenian sites have subsequently been found from Portugal in the west to Poland in the east.
The Magdalenians disappeared when the cool climate warmed around 10,000 BC. C. and herd animals became scarce.
The study was led by experts from the Natural History Museum in London, who believe that the Magdalenians did not eat human flesh to survive, but for ritual reasons, as it was just part of their culture.
The Magdalenian era saw a flowering of early art, from cave drawing and tool decoration to stone engraving.
“We interpret archaeological evidence that cannibalism was practiced on multiple occasions in northwestern Europe over a short period of time,” said Dr. Silvia Bello, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum.
‘[It’s] an indication that such behavior was part of funerary behavior among Magdalenian groups, and not simply practiced out of necessity.
“This in itself is interesting, because it is the oldest evidence of cannibalism as a funerary practice known so far.”
The Magdalenians were one of the first hunter-gatherer cultures in Western Europe, dating back between 17,000 and 12,000 years ago.
They are thought to have entered Britain from Belgium and the Netherlands around 15,000 years ago, when the British Isles were still connected to mainland Europe (before the catastrophic megaflood that separated them).
Experts analyzed bones discovered at almost 60 sites across Europe, including Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset (rock formations in Gough’s Cave are pictured)
The Magdalenian era saw a flowering of early art, from cave drawing and tool decoration to stone engraving. Pictured is a drawing of a bison in the Altamira Cave in Spain believed to have been the work of the Magdalenians.
At the time, Earth’s climate was beginning to warm after the most recent ice age, when ice sheets and glaciers covered about half of Europe, North America, South America, and much of Asia. .
According to the Natural History Museum, a group of Magdalenians went to Gough’s Cave and settled there.
Gough’s Cave, a famous Paleolithic site located in Cheddar Gorge, is famous for the discovery of three human skulls manipulated into the shape of cups.
He also produced more than 100 human bone fragments modified by cut marks, breaks and human chew marks, some of which are currently in the Natural History Museum.
For the study, researchers looked at human remains from 59 known Magdalenian sites across Europe, including England, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland and Russia.
In total, sites of ritual cannibalism included Courbett Cave in France and Maszycka Cave in Poland, El Castillo in Spain and Peterfels in Germany, as well as Gough’s Cave.
However, not all Magdalenian sites revealed evidence of this terrible practice; In some cases, bodies were deliberately buried, sometimes along with funerary offerings and rock art.
Of the 59 Magdalenian human remains sites identified across Europe, 13 showed evidence of ritual cannibalism, 10 of burial, and two of both behaviors.
Map of Magdalenian sites in Europe where cannibalism has been identified as funerary behavior
According to the new study, the people who lived in Gough’s Cave were part of a broader cannibal culture in northern Europe. In the photo, Magdalenian caps
Overall, the findings suggest that eating the dead was a “shared behavior” at the time.
In other words, it was neither widespread nor restricted to a “horrific outlier” group who had made the decision to eat the corpses of their loved ones.
More genetic evidence seemed to suggest that the two burial behaviors could be separated into genetically distinct populations.
All of the sites where evidence of cannibalism has been found show that people were part of a genetic group known as ‘GoyetQ2’, while all of the most common burials were of people who belonged to the ‘Villabruna’ genetic group.
While both groups lived in Europe at the same time, individuals with GoyetQ2 ancestry were more common in the region spanning the Franco-Spanish border.
Meanwhile, the Villabruna ancestry was carried by individuals who inhabited the Italo-Balkan region, further east.
This suggests that the more conventional funerary practice spread from east to west and gradually eliminated the more bizarre practice of eating the dead.
The study has been published in Quaternary science reviews.
GREAT BRITAIN DURING THE LAST ICE AGE
The last glacial maximum occurred about 22,000 years ago, when much of Europe was covered in ice.
During the ice age, which ended about 11,500 years ago, ice covered about 30 percent of the world’s land.
In Britain, glacial ice and water flows extended as far south as the Bristol Channel.
Average temperatures were 5°C (8°F) colder than today, allowing a kilometer-thick layer of ice to cover much of the country.
The temperature remained below 0°C all year round in northern regions, particularly Scotland, allowing the sheet to remain on the ground all year round.
Ice connected Britain to Scandinavia, allowing vast amounts of wildlife to roam freely between the UK and mainland Europe.
During this period, Britain would have seen woolly mammoths, giant deer and wolves roaming its icy planes.
Large glacial lakes covered Manchester, Doncaster, Newcastle and Peterborough and much of the country was uninhabitable for humans.
Fast-flowing corridors of ice, known as ice streams, flowed eastwards over Edinburgh and westwards over Glasgow.
All of Ireland was covered in ice, which flowed through the Irish Sea where it met the Welsh ice and then flowed south towards the Isles of Scilly.
Much of Scotland, Wales, the midlands and northern England were covered in perpetual ice.
Cambridge, covered by a huge glacial lake, was the southernmost region hardest hit by the freezing weather.
Over time, the ice and its strong water currents carved into Britain’s land, forming geological scars that can still be seen today.
These include glacial ridges sculpted by moving ice and sinuous flows of rock that traveled miles across the country.