Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bronze Age cannibalism in Atapuerca

Evidence for Bronze Age cannibalism in El Mirador Cave (Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain), American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Volume 133, Issue 3, Date: July 2007, Pages: 899-917

Isabel Cáceres, Marina Lozano, Palmira Saladié

Área de Prehistoria de la Universidad Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona, IPHES (Institut de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), Fundación Atapuerca

During excavations of the Bronze Age levels at El Mirador Cave, a hole containing human remains was found. Taphonomic analysis revealed the existence of cutmarks, human toothmarks, cooking damage, and deliberate breakage in most of the remains recovered, suggesting a clear case of gastronomic cannibalism. The piled distribution of the remains, the uneven skeletal representation, and the chronological difference between the pit and the remains suggest that these bones were subsequently buried by a human group that inhabited into the cave later in time.

Outside Trinchera del Ferrocarril complex and Sima de los Huesos site, El Mirador Cave is located at the southern side of the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain). The Bronze Age remains noticed here appeared in a 6 m2 exploratory excavation. Dating based on charcoal and bone shows that MIR4 corresponds to the Middle Bronze Age. The human remains provide calibrated dates between 4400 and 4100 BP. Dates indicate that the human remains considered here would fit chronologically into the Early Bronze Age.

Dorsal vertebrae exploitation pattern (MIR4-P22-212a and 212b):

cutmarks (arrow) cross both vertebrae as a result of the same

action. Also there are toothmarks on the laminae and peeling

of the spinal process. The articular facets have completely


The assemblage of human remains recovered from El Mirador Cave consists of 106 specimens belonging to at least six individuals. These remains show evidence of systematical dismemberment, defleshing, and consumption. The distribution of these human remains, with skulls at the bottom and postcranial bones on cranial remains, the abundant bones breakage and the obvious presence of cutmarks, cooking damage, and possible human toothmarks, provide evidences of cannibalistic practices during recent periods of prehistory. All taphonomic alterations on these human remains are anthropogenic in origin. Most incisions indicate that these bodies were defleshed and disarticulated. Cutmarks appear in areas of muscle insertion, following patterns of processing, which are similar in all individuals. Another significant feature of the assemblage is a high degree of bone fragmentation. Analysis of the fracture outline shows a majority to have curved/V-shaped with mixed angles and smooth edges. These features suggest that the breakage occurred while bone was fresh. Human toothmarks in El Mirador Cave are always superficial and small. The size of toothmarks, the presence of peeling associated with toothmarks, crenullated edges on very fragile bones, the similarity with experimental specimens, together with the absence of other modifications, which are typical of carnivores, allow us to propose that in El Mirador Cave, human toothmarks have been identified.

These remains were subject to complex perimortem processing, though it is not possible to determine how the individuals died. The human bodies had been processed similarly to other animals. This processing pattern is similar to that observed in butchered animals from this as well other archaeological sites. There are clear similarities with other archaeological assemblages displaying evidence of nutritional cannibalism, such as published for other sites like Moula-Guercy, Gough’s Cave, Grotte des Perrats, Fontbrégoua, Las Majólicas and the cave of Malalmuerzo or Mancos.

The presence of perimortem cutmarks, human toothmarks, bone breakage, and effect of cooking strongly suggest the existence of Bronze Age gastronomic cannibalism in El Mirador Cave.

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