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Prehistoric cannibalism: why such a fuss?

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Michael Rivera.

There are many ways in which societies interact with the remains of their dead. The dead are preserved (e.g. mummification, embalming), reduced to their bare bones (e.g. excarnation, defleshing), destroyed beyond recognition (e.g. cremation), exhumed and displayed (e.g. ossuaries) and hidden from sight yet memorialized (e.g. tomb stones). Among these practices, cannibalism remains an extremely contentious issue in archaeology with many societies denying its occurrence. Cannibalism is usually associated with a form of violence, madness or, in extreme cases, survival. It is rarely accepted as the representation of a funerary ritual, an odd way ‘for us’ to dispose of dead bodies. Gathering incontrovertible evidence of human body consumption is difficult and modifications of human remains are more often interpreted as defleshing or cleaning of partially skeletonized bodies rather than cannibalistic practices. In this talk, I will present how human bones from a cannibalized archaeological context can be recognize and present different forms of cannibalism which were practiced by the different species of hominins (H. antecessor, H. heidelbergenisis, Neandertals and modern humans) who occupied Europe over the last 1 million years. I will discuss some case studies, show you that it has been practiced (and is still practiced) more often than one would expect and eventually I will try to convince you of its ‘humane’ aspect.

This talk is part of the Biological Anthropology Seminar Series series.

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