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Stone age humans from Magdalenian culture practiced cannibalism as part of funeral rituals

In what most people will consider an unusual way of disposing of dead bodies, evidence from a new study has suggested that stone age people may have practiced cannibalism as part of their funeral rituals. New research indicates the people of the Magdalenian culture indeed ate their loved ones in order to dispose of their bodies after death.

This conclusion is based on the findings from an extensive analysis of bones uncovered from archeological sites across Europe, including Poland, Russia, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, and England.

Who are the Magdalenians?

Named after a Magdalenian rock shelter in Dordogne, France, called La Madeleine, the Magdalenian culture was the last cultural period of Ice Age Europe. Archeologists have learned that this ancient society lived in central Europe and northern Spain. The time period was 11,000 to 17,000 years after the Last Glacial Maximum ended and human populations started dispersing into warmer climates.

The Magdalenians’ elaborate artistic abilities and manufacturing skills are clearly apparent in the fossil evidence. Their were impressive craftsmen, creating tools with intricate designs using antlers, bone, and ivory projectile points and burins.

The Magdalenian culture, which thrived from around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago, was characterized by its wide geographical presence, ranging from Portugal to Poland. The people were believed to have migrated from Belgium and the Netherlands into Britain around 15,000 years ago, using the link between the British Isles and mainland Europe.

The Gough’s Cave

The Gough’s Cave, situated in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, is a popular Paleolithic site believed to have served as home to a group of Magdalenian people. The cave has also been famously associated with the discovery of three manipulated human skulls shaped into cups.

Over the years, hundreds of human bone fragments scarred by human chewing marks, breakage, and cut marks have been retrieved from the cave. The specimens for this study came from this collection and other sites across Europe where Magdalenians lived.

Funerary behavior

Lead author of the study was Dr. Silva Bello, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. She emphasized that the human bite marks found on the bones indicate this cannibalistic ritual was not based on the need to survive on the meat from the bodies, but as a ceremonial activity associated with funerals in that era. 

“We interpret the archaeological evidence that cannibalism was practiced on multiple occasions across northwest Europe over a short period of time,” she added. “It’s an indication that such behavior was part of a funerary behavior among Magdalenian groups and not simply practiced out of necessity.”

The researchers identified 59 other sites of Magdalenian humans across Europe. Only 13 of these 59 sites showed indications of ritual-themed cannibalistic practices. These include the Gough’s Cave in England, Courbet Cave in France, Maszycka Cave in Poland, El Castillo in Spain, and Peterfels in Germany.

Not just a Magdalenian thing

Based on the conclusions of this study, cannibalism was more likely to be a “shared behavior” in the Stone Age. It is neither widespread throughout all cultures nor limited to a specific culture or group.

From the genetic angle, separating the two funerary behaviors into genetically distinct populations might be possible. In all the sites where cannibalism was recorded, the people involved were members of the ‘GoyetQ2’ genetic population. In contrast, the study identified “normal” burial behavior among people belonging to the ‘Villabruna’ genetic population.

Although both populations lived in Europe around the same period, the GoyetQ2 population drifted more towards the region around the borders of Spain and France. Conversely, the Villabruna population lived around the Italian-Balkan region.

While cannibalism has been previously documented among ancient human ancestors, this study marks the oldest known evidence of cannibalism as a funerary tradition. It is a discovery that invites further research and challenges our understanding of funeral rituals and the cultural significance of cannibalism among the Stone Age people.

More about the Magdalenian Era

Dive deep into the recesses of prehistoric Europe, and you’ll find a captivating chapter from the Upper Paleolithic period known as the Magdalenian era.

Originating in the Franco-Cantabrian region, which encompasses parts of modern-day France and Spain, the Magdalenian people inhabited an environment emerging from the clutches of the Last Glacial Maximum. As the glaciers retreated and Europe’s climate grew milder, the Magdalenian culture thrived.

Remarkable artistry

The Magdalenian era is renowned for its art. Artisans carved intricate designs onto tools, weapons, and personal items.

But what stands out most vividly are the elaborate cave paintings found in locations such as Lascaux and Altamira. These images, often depicting animals like bison, horses, and deer in dynamic scenes, serve as windows into the spiritual and social lives of Magdalenian people.

Innovative tools

The Magdalenian era saw a proliferation in tool diversity and specialization. Using materials such as bone, antler, and ivory, the Magdalenian people crafted harpoons, fish hooks, and needles. This indicates a broadening of their diet to include marine resources and also suggests advancements in clothing construction.

Social structures

The concentration of art and tools in specific areas hints at semi-permanent settlements. The existence of such sites, like the famed Étiolles in France, suggests that Magdalenian societies had organized social structures, division of labor, and even trade networks.

Environmental interaction

The Magdalenian people demonstrated a keen understanding of their environment. Their art and tools reveal a deep connection to, and knowledge of, the animals they hunted, suggesting complex hunting strategies and rituals.

End of an era

Around 12,000 years ago, as the Holocene epoch commenced and brought warmer climates, the Magdalenian era waned. The rise of new cultures and technological innovations marked the end of this remarkable chapter in prehistoric Europe.

In understanding the Magdalenian era, we glimpse the ingenuity and adaptability of our Upper Paleolithic ancestors. Their legacy, etched in stone and bone, serves as a testament to the human spirit’s resilience and creativity during a time of profound environmental and sociocultural change.

The full study was published in the Quaternary Science Reviews.

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