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Beyond Stone & Bone

Criteria for Cannibalism
by Mark Rose
December 6, 2009

You may have seen the news about the human remains from Herxheim, a 7,000-year-old Early Neolithic site in southwestern Germany. It’s an extraordinary site. Excavations in 1996-1999 and 2005-2008 uncovered rings of overlapping elongated pits around a small settlement dated to ca. 7,000 years ago. The pits have yielded remains of about 500 people, estimated at 1,000 if the site were fully excavated. The bones have a variety of cut marks and other indications of having been processed before burial.
Bruno Boulestin and colleagues have just published their interpretation of the site in the December issue of Antiquity, presenting “strong evidence that the site was dedicated to ritual activities in which cannibalism played an important part” (you can see a very brief abstract here and shell out a rather pricey £15 if you want to download a pdf of it). And Bruce Bower’s “Contested signs of mass cannibalism” for Science News gives a counter argument by Jörg Orschiedt and Miriam Noel Haidle, who studied the remains from the earlier excavation. They stick to their interpretation that the remains are of people who died elsewhere, who were dismembered and their bones defleshed and brought to Herxheim for burial.

Some background: Herxheim was a small village of farmers and herders in the Linear Pottery Culture (7,500-7,000 years ago). Pottery found with the bones spans at most about 50 years and includes some from as far as 400 km away. Science News gives some more details, but you can also read about the site and new interpretation, which was already covered by media back in March, here: “Germany’s stone age cannibalism” on the GuardianWeekly website, originally from Le Monde). It has additional quotes by Boulestin and site director Andrea Zeeb-Lanz and interesting bits like this: In some cases human skullcaps were arranged to form a nest, on which were scattered potsherds, broken adzes, shell jewelry, and dog foot and jaw bones.

The small size of the village (just a few houses), 50-year maximum time frame, and 1,000 defunct individuals are an odd set of facts. It seems unlikely that there were enough residents to produce that many dead people, so the dead or soon-to-be-dead were coming in from outside. The village was too small to be able to raid other sites and capture this many people, and Bruno and colleagues suggest they were perhaps slaves or war prisoners, who were brought to the site from other settlements to be sacrificed and consumed. Why? Bruno and Zeeb-Lanz believe the remains at Herxheim reflect a social-political crisis in central Europe, also reflected by massacres at three other sites about the same time. Zeeb-Lanz speculates that “perhaps they hoped to prevent the end of their world through some ceremony, of which cannibalism was just a part.”

I asked Notis Agelarakis, an anthropologist at Adelphi University, what he would look for in the bone assemblage from a site with suspected cannibalism. Here are a few of his many suggestions. Are there just cut marks, maybe an indication of defleshing only, or were certain bones crushed to facilitate marrow extraction? Do any of the fragments show ivory-like “pot varnish,” a polishing that can occur if bones are stirred around in a pot? Are there indications of thermal alteration, from discoloring to collagen deformation? Is there any preserved human fecal matter at the site? If so, the presence of the protein myoglobin could be definitive evidence. It is present in muscles, but not in the gut or internal organs, so if it is found in fecal matter it indicates consumption of human muscle tissue. Regarding the people, analysis of stable isotopes from teeth could show where they are coming from, say captives from another region. Then one has to do a study of demographics. Are these just males? Whether cannibalism or defleshing, if warriors you would expect a specific age cohort. Females as well? Subadults and children? Then it’s something else.

What evidence do the Herxheim bones offer? Isotope analysis is being done, so we should get some data about where the people came from and how that corresponds to the pottery from distant sites. Boulestin says that the damage to those bones is typical of animal butchery. But is that, or the removal of skullcaps, necessarily indicative of cannibalism? Orschiedt and Haidle suggest that the absence of jaws and skull bases from new Herxheim assemblage points to reburial, with those elements being ritually removed before the remains were placed in the pits. More convincing is the crushing of ends of limb bones and presence of scrape marks inside, indicating that marrow was removed. Boulestin also says that some chewing marks on the bones are likely from humans.

The jury may still be out on this case, but it brings into question the criteria used to determine whether or not cannibalism took place, recalling the debate about evidence for Anasazi cannibalism some years ago. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in terms of going from the physical evidence to human behaviors and beliefs.

Note: There’s more information about the site and finds (in German) at Das Projekt Herxheim. Die Totengruben der zerstückelten Leichen and Ein steinzeitlicher Kultort in der Pfalz, as well as a project website Siedlung und Grubenanlage Herxheim b. Landau. You might want to have a look at the photos on these sites, especially the Menschenknochen page on the project website (human remains from the 1996-1999) excavations. You can also download Orschiedt and Haidle’s report The LBK Enclosure at Herxheim: Theatre of War or Ritual Centre?

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

2 comments for "Criteria for Cannibalism"

  • Reply posted by Nicolas Constans (December 7, 2009, 1:39 am):

    For french-speaking readers :
    Here are the links to 2 articles about Herxheim, published in January and in September 2009 in “La Recherche” (a french science magazine) :


  • Reply posted by Tsoutsoubei Sofia (January 13, 2010, 8:33 am):

    I found this article very interesting…The suggestions of professor Agelarakis just brilliant!


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