Feasting the Departed

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Today’s funerary practices usually involve burying or cremating the dead, and lifting a glass in celebration of the dearly departed.

In the distant past, however, some Stone Age civilizations in Europe opted to eat them, Science Alert reported.

About 15,000 years ago, Europe was occupied by two distinct cultures: The Magdalenian culture in the northwest and the Epigravettian in the southeast.

The Epigravettians were known to bury their dead, while the Magdaleanians left behind a treasure trove of artifacts. But scholars have remained puzzled at how the latter northwestern culture dealt with their dead.

Now, researchers examining Paleolithic human remains in northern Europe have found that cannibalism was a normal and widespread cultural practice then, according to a new study.

Researcher William Marsh and his colleagues recently conducted a literature review for evidence of cannibalism in Europe and also studied 59 sites belonging to both prehistoric cultures.

Only 25 sites showed evidence of funerary practices and 13 of them had signs of cannibalism: Researchers explained that the bones in these sites had signs of cuts and tooth marks associated with butchering and eating. Some of the remains were also repurposed to be used as tools and vessels, such as cups or bowls made from human skulls.

The team added that all the sites that showed the grisly practice were Magdalenian.

To add to the mystery, a genetic analysis of Epigravettian remains showed that they were genetically distinct from the Magdalenians – and that as a group lived thousands of years longer than their cannibalistic counterparts.

The authors admit that more research is needed to understand why Magdalenians opted to devour their dead.

Even so, the combined findings hint that the two cultures didn’t merge, but that the Epigravettians eventually replaced the Magdalenians – and opted to bury their dead.

“The Magdalenian-associated ancestry and funerary behavior is replaced by Epigravettian-associated ancestry and funerary behavior, indicative of population replacement as Epigravettian groups migrated into northwestern Europe,” Marsh said in a statement.

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