Bones Show Signs of Cannibalism: Disputed Work Hints at Ritual Sacrifices at 7,000-Year-Old Site

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, January 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

Bones Show Signs of Cannibalism: Disputed Work Hints at Ritual Sacrifices at 7,000-Year-Old Site


Bower, Bruce, Science News


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At a settlement in what is now southern Germany, the menu turned gruesome Z000 years ago. Over a period of perhaps a few decades, hundreds of people were butchered and eaten before parts of their bodies were thrown into oval pits, a new study suggests.

Cannibalism at the village, now called Herxheim, may have occurred during ceremonies in which people from near and far brought slaves, war prisoners or other dependents for ritual sacrifice, propose anthropologist Bruno Boulestin of the University of Bordeaux 1 in France and his colleagues. A social and political crisis in central Europe at that time triggered various forms of violence, the researchers suspect.

"Human sacrifice at Herxheim is a hypothesis that's difficult to prove right now, but we have evidence that several hundred people were eaten over a brief period," Boulestin says. Skeletal markings indicate that human bodies were butchered in the same way as animals.

Herxheim offers rare evidence of cannibalism during Europe's early Neolithic period, when farming first spread, the researchers report in the December Antiquity. Artifacts found at Herxheim come from the Linear Pottery Culture, which flourished in western and central Europe about 7,500 to 7,000 years ago.

Two archaeologists who have studied human bones unearthed at Herxheim reject the new cannibalism hypothesis. In a joint statement to Science News, Jorg Orschiedt of the University of Leipzig in Germany and Miriam Haidle of Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt say that Boulestin's evidence better fits a scenario in which the dead were reburied at Herxheim following dismemberment and removal of flesh from bones. Evidence of ceremonial reburial practices has been reported for many ancient societies.

If further work confirms large-scale cannibalism at Herxheim, "this would be very surprising indeed, simply in terms of the scale involved," remarks archaeologist Rick Schulting of the University of Oxford in England.

Until now, the only convincing evidence of Neolithic cannibalism came from 6,000-year-old bones in a French cave, Boulestin holds. …

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