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Archaeological Evidence for Cannibalism in Prehistoric Western Europe: from Homo antecessor to the Bronze Age

Abstract

Archaeological studies of human cannibalism and its causes have never lacked controversy. The reasons for this are both the difficulties in identifying cannibalism and the inherent complexity, by the many nuances that can have the behaviour of eating other humans. After Turner’s detailed studies in the Southwestern USA, reports were published in the 1990s of cannibalism during European prehistory. Archaeological sites identified with cannibalism have been found that date from the early Pleistocene to the Iron Age. In this study, we review data from Western Europe’s prehistoric sites, which allow us to discuss the various labels that accompany interpretations of cannibalism. The most common interpretation is not ritual but is rather gastronomic, nutritional or dietary. However, there is no agreement on this interpretation. Following the data review, we propose dividing cannibalism into the following broad, objective and useful categories: exocannibalism, endocannibalism and survival cannibalism, although it is not always easy to choose one option. We also review the taphonomic characteristics of these assemblages, which enable us to establish the most common taphonomic markers of prehistoric cannibalism. These features include abundant anthropogenic modifications (on more than of 20 % of human remains), the intensive processing of bodies, greater abundance of cut marks related to defleshing and filleting that dismembering and the presence of human tooth marks or chewing marks.

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Acknowledgments

We thank our colleague and friend Maria Soto who generously offered us her help in preparing the situation map of the sites. Deborah Barsky also invested her time to review the English grammar. We thank Asier Gómez, Bruno Boulestin and Chris Barnes for the time spent on our work and their comments that have improved the original manuscript. In fact, the history of the paper has been long, and other anonymous reviewers considerably improved this review. We want to thank sincerely all those who have given their time and knowledge to improve our work, an effort that is often not recognized, and in this particular case, we know that has involved a lot of work for them.

This study was funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness of Spain Government under research project Nos. CGL2015-65387-C3-1-P (MINECO/FEDER) and HAR2012-32548 and the Catalonian Government under project no. SGR2014-899.

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Saladié, P., Rodríguez-Hidalgo, A. Archaeological Evidence for Cannibalism in Prehistoric Western Europe: from Homo antecessor to the Bronze Age. J Archaeol Method Theory 24, 1034–1071 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-016-9306-y

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Keywords

  • Prehistoric cannibalism
  • Gastronomic and nutritional cannibalism
  • Ritual cannibalism
  • Survival cannibalism
  • Aggressive cannibalism