In the latest study, Dr. Bello and her colleagues compared the incisions on the arm bone in question with hundreds of butchering marks on human and animal bones from Gough’s Cave, as well as engravings on animal bones from the cave and other archaeological sites.
The cut marks on the arm bone were unlike butchering incisions, the researchers found. It seemed that whoever made the marks deliberately sawed the bone back and forth to make the marks deeper, wider and more visible. In contrast, when taking meat off a bone, one typically wants to minimize the number of cuts, since repeated scraping against bone makes one’s blade (in this case, a stone tool) blunt, Dr. Bello said.
The zigzag design on the arm bone matched patterns on engraved animal bones found in France from the same period, suggesting it was a common motif during that time.
Credit The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
Because heaps of animal remains were also found in Gough’s Cave, the researchers suspect that people back then were not starving and eating humans for survival. There were also no obvious signs of injury on the human remains. That “would suggest that people died from natural causes and were then eaten,” Dr. Bello said.
It’s possible that people practiced cannibalism as a way to dispose of, or even honor, the dead. In this context, engraving the bone might have been a way to extend a memory of the deceased before the body was broken down and eaten, though this is just speculation, Dr. Bello said.
In fact, we may never know what people who lived that long ago were thinking, said Pat Shipman, an adjunct anthropology professor at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the study. What’s clear, though, is that such things as how we treat the dead and what we deem acceptable to eat have constantly shifted through history.
Studies like this enlarge our understanding of our own species, she said, showing us that “there’s a lot more variability in human cultures, and cultural behavior, than we might think.”