The human arm bone from Kents Cavern
Cannibalism at Kents?
By Laura Joint
Could a 9,000-year old human bone found at Kents Cavern in Torquay be evidence of cannibalism among our ancestors?
A piece of human bone bearing cut marks could be a sign of cannibalism among early man, according to archaeologists.
The piece of arm bone was unearthed at the prehistoric caves at Torquay's Kents Cavern and has excited researchers.
The bone was dug up during the 1866 excavation led by archaeologist William Pengelly, but it has been stored away at Torquay Museum for decades.
It was recently rediscovered and has now been carbon-dated as being around 9,000 years old.
The aspect which has particularly excited scientists at Torquay Museum and the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology is the rare evidence of cut marks made by stone tools.
The caves at Kents Cavern
They say that only one other site in Britain has yielded similar human remains with cut-marks of this age - Gough's Cave at Cheddar Gorge.
Some archaeologists have interpreted these marks as evidence of cannibalism, but ritual burial practice or dismemberment for transportation has not been ruled out either.
However, the Torquay and Oxford researchers say the cut marks on the Kents Cavern bone are consistent with an act of de-fleshing or dismemberment.
They add that the fragment is also fractured in a way that suggests this occurred while the bone was fresh.
The bone was rediscovered by Torquay Museum's curator of collections, Barry Chandler: "The cut marks, which are in several groups, were immediately noticeable, but the excellent preservation of the bone made me believe it was probably from the Bronze Age or maybe Neolithic, so the 9,000 year old date came as a bit of a shock."
Tom Higham from the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit added: "The bone was particularly well preserved and the result is seen as very reliable."
The arm bone was found in the rich black mould layer in the cavern's Sloping Chamber. Other fragments of human bone have been identified from the same area and it is hoped more detailed analysis will take place.
Kents Cavern is the oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument in Britain, with evidence of human occupation dating back half a million years. Many of its internationally important finds are at Torquay Museum.
last updated: 06/08/2009 at 17:18
How the bone was rediscovered
Torquay Museum is currently cataloguing all 15,000 animal bones excavated from Kents Cavern that are housed in its store.
This process, which is nearing completion, has taken almost 10 years.
During the documentation and identification of each specimen, staff look for human remains mixed in with the animal bones, as these could date from any time from the Roman period to half a million years ago.
Around 10 human bones have turned up in the last decade.
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