Widespread Funerary Cannibalism in the Magdalenian Cultures?

The Magdalenians were a culture that lived in what is now Western Europe from approximately 17,000 to 12,000 years ago. Numerous Magadlenian sites have been found, ranging from Portugal to France to the Italian peninsula.

A recent literature review of studies of Magdalenian sites that included human remains suggests the widespread practice of post-mortem cannibalism.

Of the 59 sites identified, it was possible to ascertain funerary behaviour at 25 sites, with 10 deposits attributed to primary burial, 13 showing evidence of anthropic modification indicative of cannibalism, and two sites combining both behaviours. Given the similarities of the anthropic modifications observed on the cutmarked and cannibalised human remains across sites, the high frequency and geographic distribution of this practice, and the association, in some of the sites, of cannibalism with the ritualistic manipulation of human remains, it is proposed that cannibalism during the Magdalenian was practiced as a form of funerary behaviour rather than for necessity or as gastronomic cannibalism. Funerary cannibalism appears in greater abundance during the Middle Magdalenian whilst primary burials are more common during the Upper and terminal Magdalenian. Further, although genetic data are limited, we identify a relationship between funerary behaviour and genetic ancestry, with all cannibalised individuals showing ancestry associated with the GoyetQ2 cluster, indicative of Magdalenian human groups, whilst sequenced individuals found in a primary burial context show a genetic affinity with the Epigravettian (Villabruna associated ancestry), the other major technocomplex of the period. We hypothesise that cannibalism is a funerary behaviour indicative of GoyetQ2 associated Magdalenian populations, and that differences in funerary behaviours during the Magdalenian reflect distinct genetic ancestries indicative of known population movements during the terminal Upper Palaeolithic. This interpretation must be tempered however given that limited taphonomic or genetic study has been performed at the majority of Magdalenian sites, and thus to fully clarify the funerary behaviours of Magdalenian groups additional focus on understudied Magdalenian assemblages needs to be established.

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