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New study sheds light on Neolithic rituals involving human bones

Recent research suggests that prehistoric societies might have modified human bones for ritualistic uses.

This discovery was made during an international study led by Zita Laffranchi and Marco Milella from the University of Bern, in collaboration with Rafael Martínez Sánchez of the University of Cordoba

Focus of the study

Historically, cuts and marks found on ancient bone remains often led the scientific community to attribute their use to human consumption. 

However, the research’s analysis of over 400 remains, both adults and adolescents, from the Cueva de los Mármoles in Priego de Córdoba has presented a different narrative. These remains are housed in the local Archaeological Museum.

Bones used as tools

The team used high-resolution molds and electron microscopes to study the bones. Their observations indicate that many marks on these bones are consistent with a cleaning process, suggesting the bones were likely used as tools rather than for consumption.

Martínez Sánchez highlights the challenge of distinguishing the purpose behind the bone marks, especially since these bones were found on the cave’s surface and could have undergone various taphonomic changes, such as animal activity or trampling. 

However, the study leans away from the hypothesis of consumption. Instead, it finds evidence for a meticulous cleaning process suitable for tool use, such as a fibula with a pointed end, a modified tibia, and a skull.

Burial practices 

Carbon-14 dating unveiled three distinct funerary periods within the cave, with the earliest dating back to 3800 BC during the Neolithic. This period saw a surge in the use of dolmens, or stone tombs, for collective burials. Such burial practices signify a society deeply connected with its ancestors.

This research aligns with the Megalithic era, a time when the marks on the bones, believed to be inconsistent with consumption, support the theory that human remains were repurposed as instruments. Martínez Sánchez proposes that these remains might have been used in rituals inside the cave.

Ritualistic practices

The team’s findings challenge pre-existing beliefs, suggesting that human remains, from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age, were used for cultural and ritualistic practices long after their deposition. 

“It seems that there was the idea of grouping the dead in the same place, cleaning the remains, and using the bones as instruments, perhaps related to some type of ritual performed inside the cavity,” said Martínez Sánchez.

These rituals apparently spanned a great period of time, from the end of the Neolithic to the Bronze Age – a time “in which we did not expect to find that bodies were still deposited in this cavity,” said Martínez Sánchez.

The study not only uncovers the practices of ancient societies but also emphasizes the complexities and intricacies of our ancestors’ relationship with the deceased.

The study is published in the journal PLoS One.

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