Human bone engraving may indicate cannibalistic funerary ritual

Human bone engraving may indicate cannibalistic funerary ritual

Silvia Bello

Silvia Bello holding a skull cap from Gough’s Cave

One of the most extensive assemblages of human bones from Europe’s Magdalenian culture (which lasted from about 12,000 to 17,000 years BP) can be found at Gough’s Cave in Somerset, U.K. Many of these bones bear cuts and damage, but what caused these markings is debated among researchers. Silvia Bello, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, spoke with me about what she and her team of researchers learned from examining a right human radius found in Gough’s Cave. They recently published their findings in PLOS ONE.

What drew you to studying archaeology and cultural anthropology?
SB: I’ve always been interested in human evolution, but more in behavioral and cultural changes and adaptations than physical changes. I’m particularly intrigued in what made us ‘human’ and why, where and when we developed cognitively complex behaviors.

What are some indications of human cannibalism in Gough’s Cave?
SB: The majority of the human remains at Gough’s Cave were modified regardless of the age of the individuals and show clear signs of butchery. On the bones we recognized cut marks (incisions produced by a stone tool scratching the bone surface) produced during disarticulation, scalping, and filleting of soft tissues. We also found percussion damage consistent with marrow and grease processing, as well as evidence of human tooth marks.

Why do you think the cause of the bone markings on the radius is still a topic of debate?
SB: Cannibalism is rarely accepted as the representation of a funerary ritual, an odd way for ‘us’ to dispose of dead bodies. The sequence of modifications observed on the human radius at Gough’s Cave, however, suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations. This behavior is so different from what we do that we struggle to accept it as a possible scenario.

What do we know about the individual to whom the radius belonged?
SB: Unfortunately, very little. The radius belonged to a gracile [slender] adult individual, but that is all we can say from the characteristics of the bone. We hope that future DNA analysis will help us to get a better picture of the individual to whom it belonged, as well as of the overall population.

What is the significance of an intentional engraving on human bone instead of filleting marks from butchery?
SB: The engraving was made to be seen, which is different to butchery marks, which are an accidental byproduct of butchery. But ‘why’ they were made escapes us. The engraving may have been related to the individual, events from their life and the way that they died, or as marking a special part of a ceremony. What is clear is that the sequence of the manipulations implies that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic ritual at the site, with the act of engraving itself as significant as the finished motif.

What is next for your research? Will you be returning to Gough’s Cave?
SB: We are now analyzing in detail all artifacts found at the site, as well as seeking to gather more information about the individual the bone belonged to and the human assemblage through DNA analysis in collaboration with the Natural History Museum’s DNA lab. We would also like to explore how rare or common ritualized cannibalism was among Magdalenian populations across Europe.


Reference: Bello SM, Wallduck R, Parfitt SA, Stringer CB (2017) An Upper Palaeolithic engraved human bone associated with ritualistic cannibalism. PLoS ONE 12(8): e0182127.

Image Credit: Bello et al (2017), Silvia Bello


Tessa is the Journal Media Manager at PLOS. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in Rhetoric and Music. She can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @tessagregs.

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