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A Definition and the Archaeology of Cannibalism


Cannibalism refers to a range of behaviors in which one human consumes another or parts of another for survival, dietary, ritual and/or pathological reasons. One of the most forbidden behaviors of modern society, cannibalism is also one of the earliest cultural practices of human beings. Recent biological evidence seems to suggest that cannibalism was not only not rare in ancient history, it was so common that most of us carry around genetic evidence of our bloodthirsty past.

By the way, cannibalism is not strictly a human trait--it has been established in numerous species of mammals, insects, and birds.

Cannibalism: The Archaeological Evidence

Recent molecular studies have suggested that the genetic propensity that makes a person resistant to prion diseases (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, kuru, and scrapie)--a propensity that most humans have--may have resulted from ancient human consumption of human brains. This in turn makes it likely that cannibalism was once a very widespread human practice indeed.

More recent identification of cannibalism is based primarily on the recognition of butchering marks on human bones, the same kinds of butchering marks--long bone breakage for marrow extraction, cutmarks and chopmarks resulting from skinning, defleshing and evisceration--as that seen on animals prepared for meals. Evidence of cooking and the presence of human bone in cropolites (fossilized feces) have also been used to support a cannibalism hypothesis.

Cannibalism through Human History

The earliest evidence for human cannibalism to date has been discovered at the lower paleolithic site of Gran Dolina (Spain), where about 780,000 years ago, six individuals of Homo antecessor were butchered. Other important sites include the Neanderthal site of Moula-Guercy France (100,000 years ago), the Middle Paleolithic Klasies River Caves (80,000 years ago in South Africa), Neolithic Fontbrégoua (4300-3700 BC, France), Anasazi site Cowboy Wash (United States, ca 1100 AD), Aztecs of 15th century AD Mexico, the Donner Party (19th century USA), and the Fore of Papua New Guinea (who stopped cannibalism as a mortuary ritual in 1959).

One interesting sociological feature of cannibalism may be why if it was so widespread in our past it hasn't been recognized that commonly. Chances are that our own squeamishness may have led us to ignore data unless it was blindingly obvious. The report of cannibalism at any given site is still controversial, and in the 1990s identification of cannibalism at Anasazi sites such as Cowboy Wash and Manco was greeted with considerable skepticism.


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This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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