Page last updated at 07:34 GMT, Sunday, 6 December 2009

Ancient site reveals signs of mass cannibalism

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Burial site
The site contains remains of 500 "intentionally mutilated" humans

Archaeologists have found evidence of mass cannibalism at a 7,000-year-old human burial site in south-west Germany, the journal Antiquity reports.

The authors say their findings provide rare evidence of cannibalism in Europe's early Neolithic period.

Up to 500 human remains unearthed near the village of Herxheim may have been cannibalised.

The "intentionally mutilated" remains included children and even unborn babies, the researchers say.

The German site was first excavated in 1996 and then explored again between 2005 and 2008.

Team leader Bruno Boulestin, from the University of Bordeaux in France, told BBC News that he and his colleagues had found evidence the human bones were deliberately cut and broken - an indication of cannibalism.

"We see patterns on the bones of animals indicating that they have been spit-roasted," he said. "We have seen some of these same patterns on the human bones [at this site]."

But Dr Boulestin stressed it was difficult to prove that these bones had been deliberately cooked.

Some scientists have rejected the cannibalism theory, suggesting that the removal of flesh could have been part of a burial ritual.

But Dr Boulestin said the human remains had been "intentionally mutilated" and that there was evidence many of them had been chewed.

The early Neolithic was the period when farming first spread in central Europe and the team believes that cannibalism in Europe was likely to have been exceptional - possibly carried out during periods of famine.

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