September 06, 2010

The Archaeological Site at Atapuerca in Spain, which has yielded evidence, our human ancestors regularly engaged in cannibalism.

(INTERNATIONAL) -- A new study of fossil bones found at a famous archeological dig in Spain suggests that cannibalism was a normal part of daily life – and daily diet - around 800,000 years ago among Europe’s first humans.

Bones from the cave Gran Dolina located at the archaeological site of Atapuerca in North Spain, show signs of cuts and other marks which were made by early stone tools.

Among the bones of bison, deer, wild sheep and other animals, scientists have discovered the butchered remains of at least 11 human children and adolescents.

The bones displayed signs of having been smashed to get the nutritious marrow inside and there was evidence that the victims’ brains may also have been eaten.

Certain marks on the bones at the base of the skull also indicated the humans had been decapitated according to the study’s co-author José Maria Bermúdez de Castro.

Bermudez de Castro, of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, was quoted by National Geographic as saying “Probably they (early humans) cut the skull for extracting the brain. The brain is good for food.”

Scientists believe that early humans ate fellow humans both to fulfill nutritional needs and to kill off neighboring enemy tribes.

Bones of humans that had been eaten spanned a period of around hundred thousand years, indicating the practice was not just confined to times when food was scarce.

Because human and animal remains were tossed away together, archeologists theorize that cannibalism had no special ritual role linked to religious beliefs.

And the area surrounding the caves would have been a rich source of food so there would have been little need to turn to cannibalism as a last resort.

Instead researchers think the practice was widely used as a way of dealing with competition from neighboring tribes.

Children would have been targeted as they would have been less capable of defending themselves, the study suggests.

The Archaeological Site at Atapuerca has long been yielding fossils and stone tools of the earliest known hominids in Europe, dating to between 780,000 and 1 million years ago.

Several remains of the Homo heidelbergensis were found there, the predecessor to the Neanderthal.

The site lies in the Sierra de Atapuerca, an ancient karstic region of Spain containing several caves. They were inhabited also during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Its people left paintings and engravings in the cave walls.

The sites in this area were found during the construction of a railway. Scientific exploration started in 1964.
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