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Cave clues suggest Stone Age cannibalism.

Cave Clues Suggest Stone-Age Cannibalism

Since the turn of the century, archaeologists have asserted that various prehistoric sites contain evidence of human cannibalism, only to have their provocative claims later rejected as misinterpretations based on inadequate evidence. An international team of scientists now reports that modern scientific techniques have yielded the strongest evidence to date of cannibalism during the Stone Age.

The scientists, led by anthropologist Paola Villa of the University of Colorado in Boulder, excavated 13 shallow pits in a cave in southeastern France. One of the depressions contained the undisturbed remains of six humans -- three adults, two children and one of undetermined age--who apparently were butchered by inhabitants of the cave 6,000 years ago.

Two other clusters of human bones were discovered at the site, known as the Fontbregoua Cave, but they had been moved about and gnawed on by animals. The remaining pits contained bones from a variety of butchered animals, including sheep, goats, deer and boars.

"Human and animal carcasses were processed and discarded according to the same pattern of selective butchering," write the U.S., French and Italian investigators in the July 25 SCIENCE. "We believe that cannibalism is the only satisfactory explanation for the evidence...."

Anthropologist William Arens of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a leading critic of previous reports of systematic cannibalism among some tribes of modern hunter-gatherers, agrees. "This is a careful piece of research," he says, "and cannibalism is a likely explanation for the evidence." But both Arens and the Fontbregoua researchers point out that the site contains no evidence of ritualistic cannibalism -- the routine and systematic eating of human flesh. Instead, the remains may be the result of an isolated instance of survival cannibalism, in which people are eaten as a last resort during emergencies or hard times. Investigations of other Stone Age sites should shed light on this question, note the scientists.

Several lines of evidence led to the conclusion that cannibalism occured at the cave, which is known to have been used seasonally by small groups of people from 5,000 B.C. to 3,000 B.C. Clusters of human and animal bones contained the same selectively butchered parts, mainly from the limbs and shoulder. Both groups of bones also bear similar cut marks, apparently made by stone axes shortly after death. When examined under a scanning electron microscope, the cut mark patterns indicate that meat was removed from the bones. Furthermore, both human and animal long bones appear to have been deliberately broken to obtain marrow.

Microscopic bone changes that appear after an outer layer of meat has been cooked were not observed, say the researchers, but these changes do not show up after low-temperature cooking.

Unlike the animal bone deposits, human remains included skull bones that may have been kept as trophies or ritual objects, suggest the scientists.

While Arens concludes that this was a case of survival cannibalism, anatomist Pat Shipman of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who analyzed the Fontbregoua cut marks, is less certain about what motivated this instance of cannibalism. "A total of 13 or 14 people were eaten at this site," she says, "and probably not at a single meal. It's not yet clear whether brains were removed from the skulls for eating."

In several prior instances, purportedly butchered bones of prehistoric humans were shown to reflect scavenging by animals or secondary burials, in which corpses were dug up and reburied after flesh was ritually removed. Reports of modern cannibalism also have stirred heated debates in the past decade. Says Shipman, "This tends to be an emotion-laden area."
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 26, 1986
Words:603
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