Cave Clues Suggest Stone Age Cannibalism

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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. …