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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trouble in early Mesolithic Iberia

Humans may have dined on other humans during the Epipalaeolithic-Mesolithic transition in Iberia, according to a new paper at the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

If true, I wonder if this had anything to do with the spread of the so called Villabruna cluster across Europe at around that time? I'm not suggesting that Villabruna forager bands ate most of the other European foragers, but rather that they coped best with the stresses associated with the Epipalaeolithic-Mesolithic transition.

The paper is behind a pay wall, but the figures can be viewed here.

Abstract: The identification of unarticulated human remains with anthropic marks in archaeological contexts normally involves solving two issues: a general one associated with the analysis and description of the anthropic manipulation marks, and another with regard to the interpretation of their purpose. In this paper we present new evidence of anthropophagic behaviour amongst hunter-gatherer groups of the Mediterranean Mesolithic. A total of 30 human remains with anthropic manipulation marks have been found in the Mesolithic layers of Coves de Santa Maira (Castell de Castells, Alicante, Spain), dating from ca. 10.2–9 cal ky BP. We describe the different marks identified on both human and faunal remains at the site (lithic, tooth, percussion and fire marks on bone cortex). As well as describing these marks, and considering that both human and faunal remains at the site present similar depositional and taphonomic features, this paper also contextualizes them within the archaeological context and subsistence patterns described for Mesolithic groups in the region. We cannot entirely rule out the possibility that these practices may be the result of periodic food stress suffered by the human populations. These anthropophagic events at the site coincide with a cultural change at the regional Epipalaeolithic-Mesolithic transition.

Morales-Pérez et al., Funerary practices or food delicatessen? Human remains with anthropic marks from the Western Mediterranean Mesolithic, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Volume 45, March 2017, Pages 115–130,


pnuadha said...

If true, I wonder if this had anything to do with the spread of the so called Villabruna cluster across Europe at around that time?

This is honestly the weirdest suggestion I have ever heard from you.

I think you are making the connection between cannibalism/adaptability and the spread of villabruna cluster because it is the only information we have. If we found out they ate a lot of blueberries you might have been saying that blueberries increased the adaptability of the villabruna cluster.

Rob said...

Perhaps it relates to a "crisis" in LUP- early holocene Foragers of Southern Europe due to warming and changing biomass, with one specific group being better adapted to the new environment then expanding

Davidski said...


This is what I was trying to communicate...

- the Epipalaeolithic-Mesolithic transition put stress on European foragers

- most of them reacted by having smaller families, fighting each other, and even eating each other

- Villabruna-related bands managed to adapt to the new environment better than most of the other European foragers

- Villabruna-related bands grew in number and expanded across Europe to fill the vacuum left by the other European foragers, absorbing the stragglers

Romulus the I2a L233+ Proto Balto-Slav, layer of Corded Ware Women said...

It coincides with megafauna extinction.

Ric Hern said...

Yes I think it was possible. Looking at some situations where survival became a necessity due to Airplane crashes etc. we see some people reverting to Canabalism of their already dead comrades or family members. I think it will always be part of Plan B for survival.

Ric Hern said...

Could it be that Villabrunas wereally more practical and less emotional than the others ?

Ric Hern said...

Why does Ice Age Refuge suddenly sound like "Out of the frying pan into the fire" to me ? Mmm...

Katharós said...

Probably stress related but on the other hand "medicinal" cannibalism and magic thinking are intervened with each other. For-instance medicinal cannibalism was a quite common practise in Germany until the 19th Century. ("Eating" and using body parts of unbaptised children was also quite popular in Germany, in the good old days. lol)

The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine

Ric Hern said...


Gioiello said...

The truth is that Villabrunas ate pizza and played mandolin, for that survived.

Unknown said...

Long time viewer, first time commenter.

I'm not suggesting that Villabruna forager bands ate most of the other European foragers

lmao, I nearly spat all my coffee over the screen reading this.

Anonymous said...

Dwadzieścia lat temu czytałem- Amerykański genetyk twierdził że pewne korzystne cechy dla rozwoju mózgu mogły utrwalić się jedynie u dzieci urodzony ze związku ojca z córką.
To jest patologia, A to że ktoś zjadł bez przypraw, to już jego kłopot.

Grey said...

"It coincides with megafauna extinction."

giant ex mammoth hunters moving south

(mostly joking)

Olympus Mons said...

Any guys with +++bruna+ in the name were bound to get eaten, not the other way around!

Grey said...

"(mostly joking)"

hmm - on reflection maybe only 40% joking

Karl_K said...

We need DNA from these bones before we can even start to say anything about which culture ate which other culture.

But seriously. We know that cannibalism is more associated with prosperous cultures' rituals as it is with horrible desperate situations.

Karl_K said...

Any thoughts on how long an obvious lunatic troll should be able to insult other people before those people start not ever coming back here? I've already taken the bookmark off my browser, and replaced it with Razib's dead blog. #xyyman

MaxT said...

They give no sufficient proof other than vague theories built around marks found on bones. Do they suggest these early Mesolithic hunters were chewing on human bones long enough to leave such marks? HA!

Ric Hern said...

Makes me think of the description by Herodotus of the Issedones and their practices.

MaxT said...


I agree, Davidski should do something about that troll

Romulus the I2a L233+ Proto Balto-Slav, layer of Corded Ware Women said...


I read something recently about mammoth "hunting" which described the activity as more of Mammoth scavenging. Gravettians, especially in the North East were heavily dependent on Mammoth.

I believe all the tribes which subsisted on megafauna died out and were replaced by the tribe which switched to a maritime subsistence strategy. There was a decrease in height from the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, probably associated with a poorer diet.

Ric Hern said...

I wonder if the dog domestication got a push forward during this time ? Tracking and Hunting of smaller, faster moving game species were probably made easier and made dogs a absolute necessity during this time ?

xibler said...


Or a 'tribe' that was already exploiting marine resources and other non-megafauna edibles suddenly found themselves to be the in crowd.

Perhaps all the big game hunters were busy eating each other after all their preferred huntables had vanished to notice.

I mean, come on, does anyone at this point have an accurate picture of what was going on farther south in the 'refugia' where different subsistence patterns may've been in play, or was everybody that was anybody up north, close to the edge of habitability chasing mammoth and raindeer tail?

Grey said...


"I read something recently about mammoth "hunting" which described the activity as more of Mammoth scavenging."

Yeah, most of the studies related to this seem to have a very negative view of my Yeti ancestors.


"I believe all the tribes which subsisted on megafauna died out and were replaced by the tribe which switched to a maritime subsistence strategy."

Maybe so.


"There was a decrease in height from the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, probably associated with a poorer diet."

Right - that's what originally made me wonder if the original height was connected to a megafauna diet.

Ric Hern said...

Why did the Megafauna become so extremely large ? Was it something in their diet that caused or triggered gigantism ? Hormones ? Maybe this somehow effected the Human growth to ? Today the Chianina Cattle breed still carry this Gigantism Gene.

Grey said...

Ric Hern

I've been assuming Bergman's rule. (Not sure if that's the commonly accepted answer?)'s_rule

"species of larger size are found in colder environments, and species of smaller size are found in warmer regions"

iirc it's something to do with the mathematical relation between volume and surface area.

If so, then even if calorie density declined from the coast to the interior then maybe past a certain point what calories there were were concentrated in such big and long lasting packages you could survive off them.

or not

Ryan said...

Are there any differences in subsistence strategy to account for this?

I'm a bit skeptical of your hypothesis here David. I don't think cannibalism was that unusual in our pre-history, and according to Fu et al Europe's affinity to Villabruna had been increasing gradually thousands of years before Villabruna himself showed up. I think that seems more like a case of ongoing admixture and getting demographically overwhelmed, no?

apostateimpressions said...

Would the experts on this forum agree with this statement or do you think that 7000 bp is too early for R1b expansion into Britain and Ireland? Is Iberia the route for R1b population of the British Isles? Does the haplogroupal/ autosomal/ ancient DNA support that?

However a study from a research team at Oxford University found that the majority of Britons are descended from a group of tribes which arrived from Iberia from around 5000 BC, prior to the spread of Celts into western Europe.[4]

Unknown said...

Offtopic, but for @apostateimpressions, the Cassidy study (2015) showed that modern Irish are descended not from a neolithic woman (3343–3020 cal BC) but from a later group found on Rathlin Island (2026–1534 cal BC), from the Food Vessel culture (which is a Bell Beaker culture). These men also carried R1b-L21, the dominant type of R1b in the Isles today, as well as genetic variants for Hemochromotosis, which has been called 'the Celtic disease' and Lactose tolerance (near fixation in Ireland and NW Europe). The Neo woman lacked these markers.

Certainly the people inhabiting Ireland and Britain before BB were very similar to Neolithic Iberians anyway and there probably was a pan-atlantic facade trading network that may have involved movement of people too.

Cassidy paper:

batman said...

"We cannot entirely rule out the possibility that these practices may be the result of periodic food stress suffered by the human populations."

Besides we cannot rule out the possibility that there were completely different reasnons to the marks detected, that a canibalistic ritual".

In this regard it's due to emind everyone that no archaeological "discovery#" is more easey to make to the headlines of the Yellow Press, that "a repport" repporting about ancient "canibalism" or "massacres". Here we have a plain example of the good old ghostbuster called "suspicions of canibalism".

Similar oddities are found on several cites in Europe. As the palentological technology have improved a few of the old "massacres" and "signs of canibalism" have been exused, as the marks left have been identified as clawmarks from carnivores.

Moreover, we knopw of several traditions that have used processing of the body of a deseased family-member. The first graves, grave-mounds and graveyeards proves a vareiety of 'ptactices' - from complete cremation to part-cremation, part-dehumination and full dehumination. Already at the 8.000 yrs old graveyard from Mottala there had been ritual usage of three perosns sculls, before they were buried, separate from the rest of the body.

That doen't mean they chopped the head of the deseaces. It may mean that a burial-mound was re-used and the scull from the old body taken up and given a second grave - and a second memorial.


Within the antropological professions there's still a debate about what we (of the post-religious and post-modern culture) MAY comprehend and not, when discussing the historic facts behind the term and phenomenon named "canibalism".

Today we have numbers of gay men and lesbian women that prefer to "eat eachother" in order to produce pleasure - only - rathger than reproduction. From modern zoology we know that bonobo's have the same rare drift and pattern. Even at a similar frequency - of extraordinary rates - performing sexual highlights on a daily basis. All the year around.
Besides bonobos the homo sapiens seem to be the only specie with this kind of metabolism, drift and behaviour.

As the historic term "can-i-bal" may refer to a sexual rite of this kind - as they are known to exist during the Kybelian, Dionysian or Bacchian Festivals. The Islands around Delos, such as Lemnos and Lesbos, seem to be one of the central plaes for this kind of social, linguistical and cultural bonding.

Rob said...

Or sometimes they just went back to the grave, cut off grandMas head, and took it to their Dining room as a good omen, for a couple of weeks; then placed it back

batman said...

only if they were foreigners to the mamalian trait found especially in primates, where a deceased family-member is treated - somehow - with veneration, vengeance adn worship.

Most morphogenic figures from ancient art, as paintings, statues and masks - may be seen as a consquence of the same, human trait - by some known as empathy.

xyyman said...

For what it is worth:

From the study:
In** North African sites of Iberomaurusian and Capsian*** contexts there are dismembered human remains with cut marks associated
with secondary burials (Belcastro et al., 2010; Haverkort and Lubell, 1999; Mariotti et al., 2009). In the Mediterranean Iberian
Upper Palaeolithic, human remains with anthropic marks are ***scant and are limited ***to the site of Cova Beneito. These are mainly isolated
cranial remains and they have been interpreted as resulting from secondary burials (Iturbe et al., 1993).

xyyman said...

I assume these are "African Cannibals". wink! SMH

Romulus the I2a L233+ Proto Balto-Slav, layer of Corded Ware Women said...

Aren't Secondary Burials a common feature of Bell Beaker?

andrew said...

From the limited information available, this sounds more consistent with starvation driven cannibalism than it does with religious ritual human sacrifice, with cannibalism associated symbolically with warfare, or with cannibalism associated with suspicions that someone is a witch. Each of the others usually has a constellation of associated other signals that should appear in the digs and this doesn't seem to have those extra bells and whistles.

apostateimpressions said...

Basil S, interesting.

Do the experts think that a population that got its main autosomal structure on the Steppe migrated from the continent to Ireland and replaced the Neolithic population or did they mix on the island? In other words is there much local Neolithic ancestry in Ireland or is it mainly metal age?

Unknown said...

@apostateimpressions, From the paper:

'the Rathlin samples show no trace of significant introgression from Ballynahatty, suggesting that earlier Irish populations may not have been a source of their partial MN ancestry.'

But if you look at this: (credit to Matt)

It shows that Ireland has quite high haplotype sharing with Ballynahatty,same as Scotland and only France being slightly higher. I find it hard to believe that there was no Irish Farmer donation to modern Irish, but still I think most Irish EEF is Central European, based on nMonte stuff.

Finally, PCA from that paper shows Rathlin plotting right in Central Europe, with BB and Unetice.

Matt said...

Talking about links with continuity with the Early-Middle Neolithic farmer populations is quite difficult at the moment with existing methods / samples.

There's probably some continuity with regional farmer populations. Probably again not much as, like people note, would need direct steppe admixture into the regions for it to all be. More likely is at most something like Corded_Ware_Germany (75 Steppe: 25 Central Europe MN) mixing into different regions of Europe and say picking up 25% (at most) local Middle Neolithic farmer in France / Britain / Ireland.

I did find with the Fst scores from Mathieson et al 2015, where they split to European EN / MN into Iberian/Hungarian/Central subgroups that there are dimensions which split east:west Europe.

For instance:

PCs using those Fst scores: /
(Dimension 3 shows some split)

More clearly with Correspondence Analysis: (direction of Fst from WHG associated to South Italian populations, direction of Fst from Anatolia/Central Europe Neolithic to NW Europe / Basque, direction to Fst from Iberia Neolithic to NE Europe)

(On this; generally using Fst through either PCA or Correspondence Analysis is not good, particularly when you have a population in row and column, because of the nature of distance vs dimensional data. In this instance it seems to give interesting results).

Seems tricky at the moment to find these links through f3 / D-stat scores, which I think is because the variants those look at build up slowly and are not influenced by genetic drifts which might have been quite strong in the Early->Middle Neolithic (so would need lots of samples and coverage to become apparent).

Fst which do show some of these links have the "problem" of being are highly sensitive to within population genetic diversity (which is why e.g. Fst from Africans and Asians gets lower in European populations through the Meso->Neo->Metal ages, not because so much direct admixture, but increasing within group diversity).

There is also the haplotype sharing methods, but those need a fair amount of high coverage ancient population samples to work well, which we don't have.

Maybe the Bell Beaker paper will have some good means to look into this topic properly.

NadiaJaii_x said...


I agree!

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