Cannibalism Practices in Mesolithic Period

Increasing amount of archaeological evidence, such as fortifications of territories and pits containing dead humans blown by axes, indicates that warfare originated from prehistoric times, long before the establishment of state societies. Recently, researchers studying the animal bones in Mesolithic layer of Coves de Santa Maira accidentally discovered thirty human bone remains of the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer with anthropic marks, indicating behaviors of human cannibalism. By examining the tooth, lithic, fire signs on the bone, researchers verified that the bones were manipulated by human rather than gnawed by animals. Cannibalism is commonly classified into three types, survival cannibalism in emergency situation such as starvation, endocannibalism that involves the consumption of human flesh within one’s own social group often with ritual reasons, and exocannibalism including eating one’s own enemy.

Since the intensity of biting by human teeth is significantly lower than by other carnivores, in this study researchers assessed the intensity of biting marks (Fig. 1) and examined whether there were scratches or pit marks indicating the presence of other carnivores. They found high similarity in the shape of human biting marks on rabbit bones with those on the human bone remains. The evidence of the use of tools shown by lithic marks on some of the bones was possibly resulted from ligament-cutting and practices of defleshing muscles (Fig. 2). Moreover, analysis of human coprolite (mummified fecal remains) showed presence of human bones and further confirmed cannibalism.

Fig. 1. Tooth mark indicated by the intense flat scrape









Fig. 2 Sub-parallel stone marks that show human use of tools










Archaeological discoveries such as the one I discussed above sometimes were distorted and mystified by media or author with no archaeology expertise to prove their arguments of human’s war-like nature or attract more readers. Live Science featured a news with an appalling title Nom Nom Nom: Prehistoric Human Bones Show Signs of Cannibalism for this archaeological discovery. Despite the relatively scientific analysis throughout the article, the article used words such as “strange” or “curious” to create mysterious feelings, and did not really emphasizes, except one sentence, the reasons behind cannibalism but the scary and “mysterious” phenomenon itself. Researchers cannot determine the cannibal behavior was due to violence, war, ritual purposes or hunger, but the title of this article already gave the readers an impression of barbarian and violent nature of these hunter-gatherers. Therefore, people who skipped through the article and missed the sentence explaining reasons of cannibalism might easily conclude that these pre-Neolithic people were “savage” savages and these prehistoric evidence shows that humans have war-like nature. In this way, it reinforces our misunderstanding that modernization spreads the peace, when in fact, we don’t even know whether today’s tribal groups are more prone to violence than modernized societies or not. For me, if I didn’t study archaeology, I would easily be appalled by the article’s title and have the reinforced idea that colonization was good in a way to modernize these “underdeveloped countries” by eliminating violent or cannibal-like behaviors because I assumed their lifestyle resembles the pre-Neolithic hunter-gathers I mentioned above. The complexity of archaeological evidence thus cannot be ignored.



[2] Morales-Pérez, J. V., Salazar-García, D. C., Ibáñez, M. P., Estruch, C. M., Pardo, J. F., Cebrián, C. C., . . . Tortosa, J. E. (2017). Funerary practices or food delicatessen? Human remains with anthropic marks from the Western Mediterranean Mesolithic. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 45, 115-130. (also sources for both figures)



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One thought on “Cannibalism Practices in Mesolithic Period

  1. Bioarchaeologists are often able to determine sex, age, and health from human remains. This can allow for a further understanding past cultures and past individuals lived experiences. What was the age and health of the individuals that were found in the cave, and what can this inform us on? Was this the only site in the region from this time that shows acts of cannibalism(was this a common occurrence)?

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