They Ate Their Friend. Then They Made Art
15K-year-old human radial bone shows signs of ritual cannibalism
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 10, 2017 9:37 AM CDT
Zigzagging incisions are seen on a human radial bone found in Gough's Cave in England.   (PLOS One)

(Newser) – The radius and the ulna bones of the forearm were separated at the joint, cleaned, and chewed. But that was only the start of a cannibalistic ritual taking place in England some 15,000 years ago, scientists say after analyzing a bone with unusual markings found in a cave in Somerset, per the BBC. The 15,000-year-old human radial bone has "unusual zig-zagging incisions" that don't match 300 other filleting marks on remains in Gough's Cave, researchers from London's Natural History Museum write in PLOS ONE. Rather, the marks appear to be an "intentional engraving"—a form of art—made as "a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, implying a complex ritualistic funerary behavior that has never before been recognized for the Paleolithic period."

Evidence of cannibalism in Gough's Cave is plentiful. In 2011, scientists made the case that three skull cases were actually used as drinking vessels. But the radial bone presents the "strongest evidence" yet that "cannibalism at Gough's Cave was practiced as a symbolic ritual," study author Silvia Bello tells the BBC. The engraving—similar to engravings on other materials at sites of the same age in France—"may have been a sort of memory more directly related to the deceased," she adds, per Seeker. Why honor someone you've just eaten? Bello explains the individual, showing no obvious signs of trauma, likely died of natural causes and was afterward eaten by members of the same hunter-gatherer group, in what is known as endocannibalism. (Humans aren't all that nutritious.)

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