Cannibalism helped Britain's earliest settlers survive the ice age
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Posted 22 June 2010 - 09:23 AM
New carbon dating techniques reveal that 14,700 years ago humans living in Gough's Cave in the Mendips acquired a taste for the flesh of their relatives, and not just for ritual reasons
Scientists have identified the first humans to recolonise Britain after the last ice age. The country was taken over in a couple of years by individuals who practised cannibalism, they say - a discovery that revolutionises our understanding of the peopling of Britain and the manner in which men and women reached these shores.
Research has shown that tribes of hunter-gatherers moved into Britain from Spain and France with extraordinary rapidity when global warming brought an end to the ice age 14,700 years ago and settled in a cavern – known as Gough's Cave – in the Cheddar Gorge in what is now Somerset.
From the bones they left behind, scientists have also discovered these people were using sophisticated butchering techniques to strip flesh from the bones of men, women and children.
"These people were processing the flesh of humans with exactly the same expertise that they used to process the flesh of animals," said Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. "They stripped every bit of food they could get from those bones."
The discovery of the speed of Britain's recolonisation after the last ice age, and the disquieting fate of some of those first settlers, is the result of two major technological breakthroughs. The first involves the development of a technique known as ultra-filtration carbon dating. Perfected by scientists based at Oxford University's radiocarbon accelerator unit, it allows researchers to pinpoint the ages of ancient bones and other organic material with unprecedented accuracy.
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