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Evidence of cannibalism found in Neolithic Spain


An interdisciplinary group of specialists in archaeology, anthropology and paleogenetics from Durham University (United Kingdom), the International Institute of Prehistoric Research of Cantabria (University of Santander) and the University of La Laguna has carried out research on the site of the Cueva de El Toro, in the Sierra del Torcal, near Antequera (Málaga), which has identified the oldest evidence of cannibalism in small-scale farming and pastoral communities on the Iberian Peninsula during the Early Neolithic (7,000 years ago).

Evidence of cannibalism found in Neolithic Spain
This skull cup, made from a human cranium, shows striations from stone tools; other marks indicate
that it was also boiled in a pottery vessel [Credit: J. Santana et al. 2019]
The advent of the Neolithic in the peninsula brought about profound changes in subsistence practices with food production, the first permanent settlements and the ideological and symbolistic transformation of rural communities. One of the most important enclaves to understand this process is the Cueva de El Toro, in the Sierra del Torcal, which, together with the sites at Menga, Viera and el Romeral, forms part of the properties included in the World Heritage Declaration of the Dolmens Site of Antequera. The excavation works, directed by Dimas Martín Socas and María Dolores Camalich Massieu, from the University of La Laguna, made it possible to document human occupations ranging from the Early Neolithic to the end of the Late Neolithic (5,000 years ago).


The discovery of the oldest archaeological evidence of cannibalism at this site involved various approaches and methods, the results of which were recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Study of the remains

The human remains present in the oldest levels of Cueva de El Toro belong to seven individuals: four adults, two teenagers of 15 and 12 years, and a child of 6 years of age. They appeared in two separate assemblages: the first consisted of a human skull cup that was carved to achieve a shape similar to that of a bowl and a jaw without evidence of manipulation, while the second contained several bone fragments from different anatomical parts dispersed in the habitat area with other remains of domestic activities such as debris from food consumption.

Evidence of cannibalism found in Neolithic Spain
Neolithic skull cup from Cueva de El Toro, Spain [Credit: J. Santana et al. 2019]
The first set of remains was intentionally arranged in a cache inside the cave next to four ceramic vessels that were probably placed as an offering. The crown skull, jaw and two bone remains of the domestic area were dated by Carbon 14 to determine their age, which ranges from 5,000 to 4,800 BC, suggesting that both sets are probably the result of the same time of human occupation of the cave.

DNA analysis of the skull cup and jaw confirms that these are different individuals. In fact, the skull cup did not have a direct kinship relationship with the other human remains analyzed in the cave.


Some of the bones of the second group present cut marks, intentional blows, tooth marks and signs of thermal alteration. The DNA analysis of some human remains has indicated a possible close relationship between two individuals, which could be maternal, mother and daughter, or sisters.

The analysis of these skeletal remains has allowed us to understand the process of preparing the skull cup, which would begin with the skinning of the scalp and, possibly, of the skin covering the face and the rest of the cranium. Subsequently, the facial skeleton and the base of the skull were fragmented and their edges carefully carved to achieve a regular morphology. It was then boiled in a ceramic vessel, generating some polishing marks, and removing any remaining tissue that might still be attached to the bone.

Evidence of cannibalism

As for the second group of human remains, coming from the domestic area, the type and intensity of manipulation observed suggest that some individuals were cooked over a fire. Similar manifestations have been documented in other Neolithic sites in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, such as Carigüela, Malalmuerzo and Majólicas, although without direct chronological information, which prevents the relationship with the remains of El Toro from being properly evaluated.

Evidence of cannibalism found in Neolithic Spain
Figure detailing the cut marks on the Neolithic skull cup from Cueva de El Toro, Spain
[Credit: J. Santana et al. 2019]
The interpretation of this evidence is complicated by its extraordinary character and two main hypotheses are proposed: aggressive cannibalism linked to episodes of extreme violence between different neolithic groups; or funerary cannibalism as part of a complex mortuary practice with multiple episodes.


It should be noted that two individuals in the second group show a first-degree relationship of kinship. This means that the inhabitants of El Toro consumed the bodies of the same family belonging to other groups, in the context of extreme violence against their enemies, or cannibalism took place in a family context where the dead of the relatives were consumed as part of a funeral ritual.

In both cases, it would probably be ritualized cannibalism with a strong symbolic connotation where the skull cup may have been involved. These hypotheses also affect the explanation of this singular piece with the inhabitants of El Toro: it could be a trophy head belonging to an enemy or, on the other hand, a relic of the inhabitants of the cave.

Source: Universidad de La Laguna [March 26, 2019]

TANN

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