At a settlement in what is now southern Germany, the menu turned gruesome 7,000 years ago. Over a period of perhaps a few decades, hundreds of people were butchered and eaten before parts of their bodies were thrown into oval pits, a new study suggests.
Cannibalism at the village, now called Herxheim, may have occurred during ceremonies in which people from near and far brought slaves, war prisoners or other dependents for ritual sacrifice, propose anthropologist Bruno Boulestin of the University of Bordeaux 1 in France and his colleagues. A social and political crisis in central Europe at that time triggered various forms of violence, the researchers suspect.
“Human sacrifice at Herxheim is a hypothesis that’s difficult to prove right now, but we have evidence that several hundred people were eaten over a brief period,” Boulestin says. Skeletal markings indicate that human bodies were butchered in the same way as animals.
The article gives the grim details:
Work from 2005 to 2008 — led by Andrea Zeeb-Lanz and Fabian Haack of the archaeology division of Germany’s Directorate General for Cultural Heritage — unearthed additional human bones, mainly skulls and limb bones bearing incisions. Remains of an estimated 500 people have been found so far.
Pottery resting among the bones accumulated over no more than a few decades, the researchers say. Some pieces came from Neolithic sites located 400 kilometers from Herxheim.
The pits that surrounded Herxheim provided no protection from invaders but may have marked a symbolic boundary for a ceremonial settlement, Boulestin proposes. At first, Boulestin’s team, like Orschiedt and Haidle, thought that the dead were brought to Herxheim for ceremonial reburial.
But Boulestin and his colleagues’ opinion changed after they analyzed 217 reassembled human bones from one deposit, representing at least 10 individuals.
Damage typical of animal butchery appears on the bones, including that produced by a technique to separate the ribs from the spine, the scientists say. Heads were skinned and muscles removed from the brain case in order to remove the skullcap. Incisions and scrapes on jaws indicate that tongues were cut out.
Scrape marks inside the broken ends of limb bones indicate that marrow was removed.
People most likely made the chewing marks found near intentionally broken ends of hand and arm bones, Boulestin says.
Whatever actually happened at Herxheim, facial bones were smashed beyond recognition, “giving an impression of the destruction of individual identity, a kind of psychic violence against the person,” Thorpe says.
In the article, researchers speculate that the community may have faced some catastrophic food shortage that forced these people to dig up and consume their dead. Evidence of reburial ceremonies supports this theory. Chemical analysis may further support this explanation.