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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Germany's Stone Age Cannibalism

"It is impossible to establish direct proof of cannibalism. But here
we have systematic, repetitive gestures, which suggest that the bodies
were eaten," says Boulestin. The marks of breaking, cutting, scraping
and crushing indicate that the bodies were dismembered, the tendons
and ligaments severed, the flesh torn off, the bones smashed. The
vertebra were cut up to remove the ribs, just as butchers do today
with loin chops. The tops of skulls were opened to extract the brains.
Another telling clue is that there are proportionately fewer bones
containing marrow, particularly vertebrae and short bones, suggesting
they were set aside."


Germany's Stone Age Cannibalism

Wednesday March 25th 2009


Tens of thousands of ancient human bones found in Germany suggest that
victims were not killed just to satisfy hunger, writes Pierre Le Hir
in Le Monde


Wednesday March 25th 2009


Lead article photo


Some skeletons show signs of cannibalism. Photograph: Nikolay
Doychinov/Reuters


The German city of Speyer, in Rheinland-Palatinate, well known for its
­Romanesque cathedral, also boasts some much more macabre relics. A
collection of skulls, shin bones and vertebrae might not seem unusual
in an archaeology museum, but these particular remains are special.
They all show signs of having been cut, scraped or broken, indicating
that their owners were cannibalised.


"Look at these grooves, running from the base of the nose to the back
of the neck, or here on the temples," says Andrea Zeeb-Lanz, the
regional head of archaeology, holding up a skull. "The grooves show,
beyond all possible doubt, that the flesh was torn off." It takes good
eyesight to catch the fine parallel incisions made by the cutting edge
of the flint stone. She then shows me a piece of thigh-bone the end of
which has been crushed. Judging by the state of the bone tissue, it
was smashed shortly after the victim was killed.


All these human remains were found at the stone-age site at Herxheim,
near Speyer. About 7,000 years ago farmers, who grew wheat and barley,
raised pigs, sheep and cattle, settled here, building a village of
four to 12 houses, the post holes of which have survived. At the time
the first farmer-stockherders were moving into Europe, supplanting
their hunter-gatherer predecessors. The Herxheim settlers came from
the north (between 5,400 and 4,950BC) and belonged to the Linear
Pottery culture.


Two lines of ditches were dug around the settlement. They can't have
been defensive because they weren't continuous. Nor were they intended
for use as an ossuary, as the Linear Pottery people generally buried
or burned their dead. However, during a rescue dig just before the
area was developed as an industrial estate, in some of the ditches
archaeologists uncovered tens of thousands of ­human bones.


During the first series of excavations, at the end of the 1990s, the
numerous injuries visible on the skeletons were taken as evidence that
the victims had been massacred. But in 2008 Bruno Boulestin, an
anthropologist at Bordeaux University, examined the fragments
recovered from one of the trenches, pointing out that nearly 2,000
samples belonged to fewer than 10 individuals.


"It is impossible to establish direct proof of cannibalism. But here
we have systematic, repetitive gestures, which suggest that the bodies
were eaten," says Boulestin. The marks of breaking, cutting, scraping
and crushing indicate that the bodies were dismembered, the tendons
and ligaments severed, the flesh torn off, the bones smashed. The
vertebra were cut up to remove the ribs, just as butchers do today
with loin chops. The tops of skulls were opened to extract the brains.
Another telling clue is that there are proportionately fewer bones
containing marrow, particularly vertebrae and short bones, suggesting
they were set aside.


A quick investigation of the bones in neighbouring ditches showed that
they had suffered the same fate. Extrapolating to the whole site, only
half of which was excavated, about 1,000 people must have been
butchered. There is no other example in prehistory of a mass grave of
this size. "We are dealing with an exceptional event," says Zeeb-Lanz.
Other cases of neolithic cannibalism have certainly been identified,
in particular in France, at the caves at Fontbrégoua and Adaouste,
near the south coast, or at Les Perrats, further west, but never on
this scale.


What can this bloodbath mean? The potsherds found among the human
remains suggest it must have occurred over a period of no longer than
50 years. There is nothing to imply the victims were killed for food.
Only under extreme conditions would 100 or so farmers have been able
to overcome about 10 times their number. The archaeologists have
therefore concluded that this was some form of ritual killing. In some
cases the tops of skulls were arranged to form a nest, scattered with
pottery fragments, broken adzes, jewellery made of shells, the paws
and jawbones of dogs.


There are two main types of ritual cannibalism, as the historian Jean
Guilaine and palaeopathologist Jean Zammit explain in The Origins of
War: Violence in Prehistory. Exocannibalism targets people outside the
community: by eating a conquered enemy the aim was not so much to feed
on their body as to make them disappear for ever, appropriating their
strength, energy and valour.


Endocannibalism, within a community, was a token of affection, the
recognition of a bond that needed to be maintained. The scientists
have also excluded this possibility, given the small size of the
village. But wartime exocannibalism also seems unlikely, as it would
have involved raids on remote communities to bring back hordes of
prisoners and their pottery.


The team that discovered the site have come up with another
hypothesis. Members of the Linear Pottery culture deliberately
gathered here, with their prisoners and pottery, to take part in
sacrificial cere­monies.


"At this time, the Linear Pottery culture was undergoing a crisis,
which led to its disappearance," says Zeeb-Lanz. "Perhaps they hoped
to prevent the end of their world through some ceremony, of which
cannibalism was just a part."
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