While people today tend to bury or cremate their dead, it looks like our ancient ancestors did things a little differently.
Researchers say the Magdalenians – an early hunter-gatherer culture widespread across Europe – ate their loved ones only to dispose of their bodies.
The experts analyzed bones uncovered at almost 60 sites across Europe, including Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.
The presence of human bite marks shows that cannibalism was “a common burial practice” – so it wasn’t because they needed the meat to survive.
Gough’s Cave is famous as the site of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, dating back around 10,000 years and named ‘Cheddar Man’.
Skull caps from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England and Courbett Cave in southern France
The ancient Magdalenians
The Magdalenian is one of the later Upper Palaeolithic cultures in Western Europe and dates back to around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago.
It is named after the type site of La Madeleine, a rock shelter in the Vézère Valley, commune of Tursac, in the Dordogne department of France.
The culture was geographically widespread, and later Magdalenian sites have been found from Portugal in the west to Poland in the east.
The Magdalenians disappeared when the cool climate changed around 10,000 BC. BC warmed up and herd animals became scarce.
The study was led by experts at 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 simply part of their culture.
The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave drawing to tool decoration to stone engraving.
“We interpret the archaeological evidence that cannibalism was practiced multiple times across northwestern Europe over a short period of time,” said Dr. Silvia Bello, paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum.
‘[It’s] an indication that such behavior was part of a funerary pattern among Magdalenian groups and was not simply practiced out of necessity.
“This is interesting in itself because it is the oldest known evidence of cannibalism as a burial practice.”
Magdalenians were an early hunter-gatherer culture in Western Europe that emerged around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago.
They are thought to have arrived in 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 uncovered at almost 60 sites across Europe, including Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset (pictured are rock formations in Gough’s Cave)
The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art – from cave drawing to tool decoration and stone engraving. Depicted is a bison drawing in the cave of Altamira in Spain, which probably comes from the Magdalenians
At that time, Earth’s climate began 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 made their way to Gough’s Cave and settled there.
Gough’s Cave, a famous Paleolithic site in Cheddar Gorge, is known for the discovery of three tampered cup-shaped human skulls.
In addition, more than 100 human bone fragments were found, altered by cuts, fractures and chewing marks. Some specimens are currently in the Natural History Museum.
For the study, researchers examined human remains from 59 known Magdalenian sites across Europe, including England, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland and Russia.
Overall, 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 Cave.
However, not all Magdalenian sites found evidence of this cruel practice; In some cases the bodies were intentionally buried, sometimes alongside grave goods and cave art.
Of the 59 sites of Magdalenian human remains identified across Europe, 13 showed evidence of ritual cannibalism, ten of burials, and two of both behaviors.
Map of Magdalenian sites in Europe where cannibalism has been identified as a burial behavior
According to the new study, the people who lived in Gough’s Cave were part of a broader cannibalistic culture of northern Europe. Shown are Magdalenian skullcaps
Overall, the results suggest that eating the dead was a “common behavior” at this time.
In other words, it wasn’t widespread and wasn’t limited to a “cruel runaway group” who decided to eat the corpses of their loved ones.
Further genetic evidence seemed to indicate 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 the people were part of a genetic group known as “GoyetQ2,” while all of the more common burials were of people belonging 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 around the French-Spanish border.
Meanwhile, Villabruna ancestry was carried by people living in the Italo-Balkan region further east.
This suggests that the more conventional burial practice spread from east to west, gradually displacing the stranger practice of eating the dead.
The study was published in Quaternary Science Reviews.
Britain during the last Ice Age
The last glacial maximum occurred around 22,000 years ago, when large parts of Europe were covered with ice.
During the Ice Age, which ended about 11,500 years ago, ice covered about 30 percent of the world’s land area.
In Great Britain, glacial ice and water flows extend as far south as the Bristol Channel.
Average temperatures were 5 °C (8 °F) colder than today, leaving much of the country covered in a kilometer-thick layer of ice.
In the northern regions, particularly Scotland, the temperature remained below 0°C all year round, allowing the leaf to remain on land all year round.
The ice linked Britain to Scandinavia and allowed a variety of large wildlife to move freely between Britain and mainland Europe.
During this time, Britain would have been able to observe animals such as woolly mammoths, giant deer and wolves on its icy plains.
Large glacial lakes covered Manchester, Doncaster, Newcastle and Peterborough and large parts of the country were uninhabitable for humans.
Corridors of fast-flowing ice, called ice streams, flowed east across Edinburgh and west from Glasgow.
The whole of Ireland was covered in ice, which flowed through the Irish Sea, where it met Welsh ice, and then flowed south towards the Isles of Scilly.
Much of Scotland, Wales, the Midlands and northern England was covered in perpetual ice.
Covered by a vast glacial lake, Cambridge was the southernmost region severely affected by the icy climate.
Over time, the ice and its vast flows of water have hollowed out the land of Britain, leaving geological scars that are still visible today.
These include glacial ridges formed by moving ice and winding rock streams that moved for miles across the land.