Page last updated at 08:22 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 09:22 UK

Cannibalism theory over bone find

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The bone marks could indicate a ritual - or that its owner was eaten

A human bone found in Devon with tool cuts thought to have been made during a ritual ceremony 9,000 years ago may be evidence of cannibalism.

Torquay Museum staff identified the arm bone as they documented animal remains discovered in Kents Cavern in Torquay.

The bone's marks are thought to have been made by stone tools and could indicate a ritual - or that the victim was devoured by other people.

The caves are the oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument in Britain.

The bone was first unearthed in 1866 by archaeologist William Pengelly, who spent 15 years excavating the cavern.

It was put into storage in the museum and "rediscovered" in December 2008.

The marks are believed to be from a stone tool

It was found as part of a cataloguing programme, which has been examining about 15,000 animal bones excavated from the cavern that had been housed in the museum's store.

The museum's researchers found the butchered bone in June, and, working with the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology and Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, identified it as a fragment of human arm bone.

It was then radiocarbon dated to 8,185 years BP [Before Present, an archaeological term meaning before 1950].

Tom Higham, from the radiocarbon unit, said: "The bone was particularly well preserved and the result is seen as very reliable."

Dr Rick Schulting, of the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology, said: "Finds like this highlight the complexity of mortuary practices in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), many thousands of years before the appearance of farming, which is more usually associated with complex funerary behaviour."

The museum said only one other site in Britain had 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," a museum spokesman said.

Archaeological digs there have unearthed a 37,000-year-old human jawbone and stone tools that were more than 40,000 years old.



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