Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Cultural Cannibalism as a Paleoeconomic System in the European Lower Pleistocene

Evidence of human cannibalism is currently found in many archaeological assemblages from different chronologies. The TD6 level of Gran Dolina (Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos), dated to more than 800 ky, is the oldest case known hitherto.

To date 165 remains have been recovered which correspond to a minimum of 11 individuals of different ages. The analysis of those cranial and postcranial remains of Homo antecessor has established the presence of several modifications of anthropic origin that are related to carcass exploitation. marks show that the corpses of these individuals were processed in keeping with the mimetic mode used with other mammal carcasses: skinning, defleshing, dismembering, evisceration and periosteum and marrow extraction. The Cutmarks, peeling and percussion butchery techniques exhibited in TD6 show the fundamental intention of obtaining meat and marrow and maximally exploiting nutrients. Once consumed, human and non-human remains were dumped, mixing them together along with lithic tools.

a) Some skeletal elements of Homo antecessor from level TD6 of Gran Dolina (Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos) - b) Female individual mandible of Homo antecessor recovered during the 2003 season - c) Microscopic detail of cut marks present in the scapula of Homo antecessor - d) Metacarpal of Homo antecessor with cut marks.

Cannibalism in TD6 cannot have been an isolated event since it has been documented in different archaeostratigraphic units. Sedimentary characteristics have allowed us to identify a succession of events in a dilated temporal sequence.

The abundant evidence of cannibalism, the number of individuals, their age profile and the archaeostratigraphic distribution all suggest that the motive for cannibalism in level TD6 was nutritional. The cannibalism has been included as a subsistence strategy of Homo antecessor. This strategy was incorporated as a successful behaviour against another group to compete for resources and territory. This type of cannibalism would have reaped a double benefit. On the one hand it served as a dietary purpose, while on the other it would have proved useful in defending the group’s territory from other human groups. Anthropophagy was practiced for a long period of time during which humans of one group consumed those of another. The represented ages of Homo antecessor (infants and juveniles) suggest that individuals that would have posed a lower risk for hunters and that would have been effective in the strategy of controlling competitors were sought out. The pyramid of mortality suggests exocannibalism as Homo antecessor would have been limiting the reproductive capabilities of the competitor group.

In conclusion, about a million years ago the hominids of level TD6 added cannibalism to their set of survival strategies as a way of competing with other human groups for available resources. This practice, accepted and included in their social system, is the oldest example of cultural cannibalism known to date.

For further information

Article "Cultural Cannibalism as a Paleoeconomic System in the European Lower Pleistocene" A. Rodríguez-Hidalgo" Carbonell, E et al. Current Anthropology, 51:539-549, August 2010


Isabel Cáceres