The way we say goodbye to those who’ve passed on has changed throughout history and across different cultures. Yet, a certain burial custom we believed was quite uncommon may have been more popular than we realized.
A recent study of ancient human remains found all over Northern Europe revealed that cannibalism might have been a standard ritual, regularly performed over a broader area than we once assumed.
During this era in Europe, about 15,000 years ago, the Magdalenian culture thrived, and the latest discoveries suggest that cannibalism was a common funerary practice among them.
“Instead of burying their dead, these people were eating them,” said Silvia Bello, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London.
“We interpret the evidence that cannibalism was practiced on multiple occasions across northwestern Europe over a short period of time as this practice was part of a diffuse funerary behavior among Magdalenian groups. That in itself is interesting because it is the oldest evidence of cannibalism as a funerary practice.”
Despite the toll that time has taken on much of human history, the Magdalenian culture has left us with a relatively abundant legacy of their art and technology. The stone and bone tools they used and created to enhance their daily lives have stood the test of time. Additionally, we’ve been able to recover many of their skeletal remains, which have been preserved over thousands of years.
What remains elusive is a detailed grasp of their burial customs. Archaeologists have gathered clues suggesting that these customs could have diverged significantly from modern practices. For instance, bones found in Gough’s Cave, situated in Cheddar Gorge — the very place associated with the well-known Cheddar Man — indicated signs of cannibalism.
Cannibalism is generally seen as an uncommon practice among humans. Yet, according to archaeologists Silvia Bello and her colleague William Marsh from the Natural History Museum, other Magdalenian sites also exhibit potential evidence of this practice, implying that Gough’s Cave might not be an exceptional case.
Bello and Marsh embarked on an in-depth investigation into this subject, conducting a comprehensive review of existing scholarly articles to trace indications of cannibalism throughout Europe. Their scope extended beyond the Magdalenians, encompassing the broader tapestry of Upper Paleolithic Europe, which hosted two unique cultures: the Magdalenians were spread across the northwest, while the Epigravettians occupied the southeast.