Evidence of mass cannibalism in which even children and unborn babies were on the menu has been uncovered in Germany by archaeologists.
Analysis of 7,000-year-old bones dug up at Herxheim in south-west Germany suggest the region was a centre for cannibalism at a time when the first European farming society may have been collapsing.
Marks on bones show that bodies were skinned and had their flesh removed using techniques almost identical to those for butchering animals and one researcher suggested that some of the victims could have been spit-roasted.
Many of the bones appear to have been deliberately smashed to allow the living to suck out the marrow of the dead. Others bear the “chew marks” of teeth and while they are too indistinct to be certain scavenging animals were not to blame, the “distinctive distribution speaks strongly in favour” of having been made by hungry humans.
Cut marks on the bones are often so clear that archaeologists have been able to distinguish between which cuts were intended to skin and scalp the bodies and which were made to get at the meat.
Archaeologists concluded cannibalism was taking place after carrying out a detailed study of bones identified as coming from six adults, at least one of them a man, two children aged about 6 and 15, and two unborn babies.
But with almost 500 other bodies already dug up at Herxheim and at least as many again still to be recovered the final number of people eaten by cannibals could be much higher.
Researchers suspect the remains belong either to people eaten in victory celebrations after being killed in wars, or to those slaughtered and consumed as part of ritual sacrifices. They said the sheer number of victims made it unlikely that cannibalism was a last resort during famines.
The 10 people whose remains were analysed for the study are all thought to have died at the same time and the researchers said: “The human bones show abundant and unequivocal evidence of human-indeced modifications. Modifications induced by the cutting up of corpses are cut marks and scrape marks.”
Once the ribs had been cut away from the spine the heads were broken open - “perhaps to extract the brain” - and the tongue cut out before the fleshy parts of the limbs were removed. Bones could then be removed and smashed open for the marrow.
“All these observations allow us to conclude that the individuals were cannibalised,” the archaelogical team concluded in their report published in the journal Antiquity. “It is highly probable that a great number of the thousand or so individuals probably deposited in Herxheim were subjected to cannibalism.”
Dr Bruno Boulestin, of Bordeaux University, accepted it was impossible to be certain if the flesh was eaten raw or was cooked but added: "We see patterns on the bones of animals indicating that they have been spit-roasted. We have seen some of these same patterns on the human bones.”
Herxheim’s remains date from a period when Europe is thought to have been plunged into upheaval, violence and decline following 500 years in which Neolithic farmers first settled the region.
Professor Chris Scarre, a neolithic expert at the University of Durham, said after learning of the study that the Herxheim site could represent useful evidence of a society in turmoil but cautioned that cannibalism can be hard to prove because other factors, such as funerary rites, can leave similar marks on bones.