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)



Further readings:

Using Microfauna Analysis to Reconstruct the Environmental History of the Ancient Helike

Despite the written records that give clues to the location of Helike, a principal city of ancient Greece in the Bronze Age, it was not until 2001 that scientists finally found traces of the lost city (the Classical site) under an inland lagoon after more than a century’s speculation about the actual site. Astonishingly, scientists of Helike Project also discovered a well-preserved Early Bronze Age (EBA) city nearby (in Saitis area) dating back to 2400 BC.

An excavation site at the ancient Greek city of Helike

Ancient written accounts attributed the destruction of Helike to Poseidon, the Greek God of the sea and earthquakes, who brought an earthquake followed by a large tsunami in 373 BC. Through the analysis of microfauna assemblages, archaeologists were able to confirm the incidents that obliterated the city and reconstructed the environmental history of the ancient sites.  The indicator species, whose presence or absence reflects specific environmental conditions, of Helike Delta are ostracods (Crustacea) and foraminifers (Protozoas). Their distribution is influenced by the salinity (freshwater, brackish or marine environments), temperature, oxygen levels or food availability. The microfossils are calcareous (resistant to decomposition) with low tolerance levels towards the environment (high sensitivity), thus accurately reflecting the microclimate with our assumption that their responsiveness to the environment is similar to that of the living species.

By gathering sediment samples and selecting paleoenvironmental indicators, researchers found that the sediment indicates a wide range of aquatic environments. Species with varied tolerance levels coexisting suggests transitional zones, maybe nearshore waters with seasonally different input of freshwater; terrestrial snail shells in aquatic microfauna assemblages indicate reworking of sediments from different environments (extreme case of damaged shells suggests tsunami transportation). Microfossil samples are also used to propose a stratigraphic correlation. Brackish water sediments (usually found below sea level) found above sea level show that the Helike Delta experienced tectonic shift (earthquake); majority of reworked shells from brackish water shows that the reworking was possibly due to wave action (tsunami) instead of run off from storms and floods.

Scanned micrographs of paleoenvrionmental microfauna indicators

Researchers thus carefully reconstructed the environmental conditions of Helike, concluding that submergence of EPA city, possibly a nearshore environment, was caused by earthquake, while sedimentation and tectonic activity caused its nearby area to reemerge as dry land and occupied by human populations in historical times. The Classical site was buried in a lagoon by the strong earthquake along with a powerful tsunami, and the sedimentation by the demolition continually uplifted the area, forming today’s Helike Delta.

Microfauna analysis showed its strength in use for deducing the past environment compared to the ambiguity of macrofauna which could be transported to the area. By conjecturing what the local environment of an archaeological site was like, researchers could not only reconstruct historical events of the rise and fall of ancient cities or geographical distribution of the land, but also further deduce how humans lived because environment, which determines food source, influences human lifestyle and activity (hunting, fishing…) to a great extent.



Alvarez-Zarikian, C. A., Soter, S., & Katsonopoulou, D. (2008). Recurrent Submergence and Uplift in the Area of Ancient Helike, Gulf of Corinth, Greece: Microfaunal and Archaeological Evidence. Journal of Coastal Research, 1, 110-125.



Alvarez-Zarikian, C. A., Soter, S., & Katsonopoulou, D. (2008). Recurrent Submergence and Uplift in the Area of Ancient Helike, Gulf of Corinth, Greece: Microfaunal and Archaeological Evidence. Journal of Coastal Research, 1, 110-125.


Further readings: (including videos analyzing microscopic life that shed light on the Helike mystery).