Wednesday, 1 September 2010

El caníbal

Since 1994, bones have been collected from a cave system in the Atapuerca Mountains of Northern Spain. Around 800,000 years ago, the caves were home to Western Europe's earliest known Homo species, though there is still debate over whether they belong to H. heidelbergensis, H. erectus or even a new species, H. antecessor. The bones from the spoil heaps bear the signs of butchery. There are score marks from stone tools and breaks where they have been broken apart to get to the marrow. In Gran Dolina these butchered bones are of bison, deer, sheep and at least eleven humans.

These proto-Spaniards were cannibals. The butchered human remains are found regularly - amongst those of other animals - in layers covering a span of at least 100,000 years, so the idea that cannibalism may have been a last resort in hard times has been discounted. The climate would have been mild and the landscape suitable for many rich food sources. It looks like the dead folk were just another source of nutrition. The way the bones are discarded and mixed suggests there was no ritual attached, as there is in many more recent cases of cultural cannibalism. Signs show that the skulls were cracked open and brains eaten, too. Nice.

One other - speculative - possibility is that it was routinely carried out as part of a turf war. If the surrounding area was prime real estate, there may well have been rival groups competing for territory. So far, all the cannibal victims look to have been children or teenagers. Weak, easy targets? Early natural deaths? It has so far proved impossible to determine whether the dinner was related to the diners - that might eventually provide a big clue as to what was going on. In any case, cannibalism is far from unusual in palaeocultures. There is a fairly strong track record of it, and probably the tendency not to be looking for the signs of it might mean it's even more prevalent through hominid and human history than currently thought. Ask Sawney Bean.

In other caves of the Atapuercas, bones of lions and bears were found. Sounds like a rubbish place to live. If the lions and bears don't get you, your neighbours might.