Sunday, October 9, 2011 - 0 comments

Once were Canibals : 3. Early European Cannibals

By : Tim D.White

THE MOST IMPORTANT paleoanthropological site in Europe lies in northern Spain, in the foothills of the
Sierra de Atapuerca. The oldest known section so far is the Gran Dolina, currently under excavation. The team working there has recovered evidence of occupation some 800,000 years ago by what may prove to be a new species of human ancestor, H. antecessor. The hominid bones were discovered in one horizon of the cave’s sediment, intermingled with stone tools and the remains of prehistoric game animals such as deer, bison and rhinoceros. The hominid remains consist of 92 fragments from six individuals. They bear unmistakable traces of butchery with stone tools, including the skinning and removal of flesh and the  processing of the braincase and the long bones for marrow. This pattern of butchery matches that seen on the nearby animal bones, providing the earliest evidence of hominid cannibalism.

Cannibalism among Europe’s much younger Neandertals—who lived between 35,000 and 150,000 years  ago—has been debated since the late 1800s, when the great Croatian paleoanthropologist Dragutin Gorjanovi ˇc-Kramberger found the broken, cut-marked and scattered remains of more than 20 Neandertals
entombed in the sands of the Krapina rock-shelter. Unfortunately, these soft fossil bones were roughly extracted (by today’s standards) and then covered with thick layers of preservative, which obscured evidence of processing and made interpretation exceedingly difficult. Some workers believe that the Krapina bones show clear signs of cannibalism; others have attributed the patterns of damage to rocks falling from the cave’s ceiling, to carnivore chewing or to some form of burial. But recent analysis of the bones from Krapina and from another Croatian cave, Vindija—which has younger Neandertal and animal remains—indicates that
cannibalism was practiced at both sites.

In the past few years, yet another site has offered evidence. On the banks of the Rhône River in southeastern France, Alban Defleur of the University of the Mediterranean at Marseilles has been excavating the cave of Moula-Guercy for more than a decade. Neandertals occupied this small cave 100,000 years ago. In one layer the team unearthed the remains of at least six Neandertals, ranging in age from six years to adult. Defleur’s meticulous excavation and recovery standards have yielded data every bit the equivalent of a modern forensic crime scene investigation. Each fragment of fauna and Neandertal bone, each macrobotanical clue, each stone tool has been precisely plotted three-dimensionally. This care has allowed an understanding of how the bones were spread around a hearth that has been cold for 1,000 centuries.

It is clear from the
archaeological record
that meat—fat or muscle
or other tissue—on the
bone was not the only
part of the body that was
consumed. Braincases
were broken open, and
marrow was often
removed from long bones.
In these two examples,
stone hammers split the
upper arm bones
lengthwise, exposing
the marrow.
Microscopic analysis of the Neandertal bone fragments and the faunal remains has led to the same conclusion
that Spanish workers at the Gran Dolina site have drawn: cannibalism was practiced by some Paleolithic Europeans. Determining how often it was practiced and under what conditions represents a far more difficult challenge. Nevertheless, the frequency is striking. We know of just one very early European site with hominid remains, and those were cannibalized. The two Croatian Neandertal sites are separated by hundreds of  generations, yet analyses suggest that cannibalism was practiced at both. And recently a Neandertal site in France was shown to support the same interpretation. These findings are built on exacting standards of  evidence. Because of this, most paleoanthropologists these days are asking, “Why cannibalism?” rather
than “Was this cannibalism?”

Similarly, discoveries at much younger sites in the American Southwest have altered the way anthropologists think of Anasazi culture in this area. Corn agriculturists have inhabited the Four Corners region for centuries, building their pueblos and spectacular cliff dwellings and leaving one of the richest and most fine-grained archaeological records on earth. Christy G. Turner II of Arizona State University conducted pioneering
work on unusual sets of broken and burned human skeletal remains from Anasazi sites in Arizona, New
Mexico and Colorado in the 1960s and 1970s. He saw a pattern suggestive of cannibalism: site after site containing human remains with the telltale signs. Yet little in the history of the area’s more recent Puebloan peoples suggested that cannibalism was a widespread practice, and some modern tribes who claim descent
from the Anasazi have found the idea disturbing.

The vast majority of Anasazi burials involve whole, articulated skeletons frequently accompanied by decorated ceramic vessels that have become a favorite target of pot hunters in this area. But, as Turner recorded, several dozen sites had fragmented, often burned  human remains, and a larger pattern began to emerge. Over the past three decades the total number of human bone specimens from these sites has grown to tens of thousands, representing dozens of individuals spread across 800 years of prehistory and tens of thousands of square kilometers of the American Southwest. The assemblage that I analyzed in 1992 from an Anasazi site in the Mancos Canyon of southwestern Colorado, for instance, contained 2,106 pieces of bone from at least 29 Native American men, women and children.

These assemblages have been found in settlements ranging from small pueblos to large towns and were often contemporaneous with the abandonment of the dwellings. The bones frequently show evidence of roasting before the flesh was removed. They invariably indicate that people extracted the brain and cracked the limb bones for marrow after removing the muscle tissue. And some of the long bone splinters even show end polishing, a phenomenon associated with cooking in ceramic vessels. The bone fragments from Mancos revealed modifications that matched the marks left by Anasazi processing of game animals such as deer and bighorn sheep. The osteological evidence clearly demonstrated that humans were skinned and roasted, their muscles cut away, their joints severed, their long bones broken on anvils with hammerstones, their spongy bones crushed and the fragments circulated in ceramic vessels. But articles outlining the results have proved controversial. Opposition has sometimes seemed motivated more by politics than by science. Many practicing anthropologists believe that scientific findings should defer to social sensitivities. For such anthropologists, cannibalism is so culturally delicate, so politically incorrect, that they find any evidence for it impossible
to swallow.

The most compelling evidence in support of human cannibalism at the various Anasazi sites was published in
2000 by Richard A. Marlar of the University of Colorado School of Medicine and his colleagues. The workers excavated three Anasazi pit dwellings dating to approximately A.D. 1150 at a site called Cowboy Wash near Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado. The same pattern of findings that had been documented
at other sites, such as Mancos, was present: disarticulated, broken, scattered human bones in nonburial contexts. Excellent preservation, careful excavation and thoughtful sampling provided a chemical dimension to the analysis and, finally, direct evidence of human cannibalism. Marlar and his colleagues discovered residues  of human myoglobin—a protein present in heart and skeletal muscle—on a ceramic vessel, suggesting that
human flesh had been cooked in the pot. An unburned human coprolite, or ancient feces, found in the fireplace of one of the abandoned dwellings also tested positive for human myoglobin. Thus, osteological, archaeological and biochemical data indicate that prehistoric cannibalism occurred at Cowboy Wash.
The biochemical data for processing and consumption of human tissue offer strong additional support for numerous osteological and archaeological findings across the Southwest.

Next : Understanding Cannibalism


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