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Researchers Have Found Signs of Ritualistic Cannibalism in a Paleolithic Cave

An old human radius bone from a cave in the U.K. has both tooth marks and engravings, suggesting that cannibalism may have been part of an early funeral ritual.

The human bone pictured above, unearthed from the United Kingdom's Gough's Cave in 1987, is the first clear evidence that earlier humans practiced ritualistic cannibalism, according to a new study published in PLoS One.

The radius bone belonged to a human living in the late Paleolithic period, roughly 14,000 years ago. Previous discoveries have suggested cannibalism took place at Gough's Cave. But this latest finding suggests that more than just a simple meal occurred: The bone, which bears signs of damage from cuts and human teeth, features a zigzagging pattern of markings on one side that can't necessarily be attributed to the "filleting of muscles," according to the paper.

Comparing the morphology of the marks to other bones with fillet marks or engravings, the researchers concluded that the etchings could have been purposefully carved into bone, which would make the artifact the first evidence that our Paleolithic ancestors engraved human bones. "It suggests that cannibalism was practiced as part of a funerary ritual," Silvia Bello, a researcher at the Natural History Museum–London and lead author on the new study, writes in an email. "Probably a strange way for us to dispose of bodies, but part of their 'common' behaviour."