Engraved human bones unearthed in the UK may have been engraved as part of a cannibalistic ritual during the Palaeolithic period, research shows.

Human bones featuring cuts and damage often turn up at Magdalenian (approximately 12 to 17,000 years BP) European sites, with one of the most extensive assemblages being found at Gough’s Cave in Somerset, UK.

Previous analysis of the human bones from the site found evidence of human cannibalism, but palaeontologists are in debate about whether some of the marks found on the bones were intentionally engraved or simply the result of butchery.

The authors of the latest study looked at a right human radius excavated in 1987, which had been modified by cut marks, percussion damage and human tooth marks, as well as unusual zig-zagging cuts on one side.

To investigate whether these zig-zagging cuts were a result of intentional engraving of the bone, the researchers used macro- and micro-morphometric analysis of the marks and compared them to other artefacts from the same period.

Their analysis reveals that the marks were engraved intentionally, which suggests that these engravings were a purposeful component of a multi-stage cannibalistic ritual.

While the researchers can only speculate as to the symbolic significance of the engravings, they suggest that they are part of some sort of cannibalistic funeral practice that has not been previously recognised in the Palaeolithic period.

“The sequence of modifications performed on this bone suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations,” says Silvia Bello, Calleva Researcher at the Natural History Museum.

“Although in previous analyses we have been able to suggest that cannibalism at Gough's Cave was practiced as a symbolic ritual, this study provides the strongest evidence for this yet.”

The study is accessible here.