Ancient people possibly ate one another

Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter in 'Silence of the Lambs'.
Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter in 'Silence of the Lambs'.

Hannibal Lecter, the fictional character known for his chilling cannibalism scenes in movies Silence of the Lambs, is the stuff of nightmares.

Cannibalism is the ultimate taboo of human society and something we would like to think of that only happens in movies. 

Yet, research shows that cannibalism could have been happening more often than we think. Engravings on an ancient human bone may have been part of a cannibalistic ritual, researchers report.

An interesting find

The bone – a right human radius dating from the Paleolithic period – was found in 1987 at Gough's Cave in Somerest, Great Britain. Previous human bones found at the site had evidence of cannibalism, but there has been debate about whether some marks on the bones were made intentionally or were caused by butchering.

Intentional 'symbolic' engravings

The bone in this study had cut marks, human tooth marks, impact damage and unusual zig-zagging cuts on one side, according to the researchers.

Their analysis of the bone led them to conclude that the zig-zag marks were engraved intentionally, suggesting they were made as part of a ritual. The study was published in the journal PLoS One.

"The sequence of modifications performed on this bone suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations," said Silvia Bello, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London.

"Although in previous analyses we have been able to suggest that cannibalism at Gough's Cave was practiced as a symbolic ritual, this study provides the strongest evidence for this yet," she said in a journal news release.

Why does cannibalism happen?

Although deemed taboo in society, it happens from time to time, and we often wonder why. According to a Health24 article, cases of cannibalism often happened out of desperation or a will to survive, like in the case of a plane crash or people stranded on a life raft. Many tribes also practiced cannibalism as a rite, like the case of tribes in Papua, New Guinea in the 1960s.

In times of famine people also turn to cannibalism: Well-documented cases include the famines in Egypt (1073–1064) when the Nile failed to flood for eight years, the Great Famine in Europe in 1315–1317 and the famine in China from 1958–1961.

Image supplied by Wikimedia Commons

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