Head cheese may not be for everyone but it has an intensely devoted following. Most head cheese recipes call for the removal of brain, eyes, and ears before preparation, but purists scoff at this and include everything except bones. It is doubtful that Upper Paleolithic humans made head cheese; it is too time consuming. It seems likely, however, that they made “soups” using whole heads. While some may think Goat’s Head Soup is a Rolling Stones album, others know it is in fact a tasty and nutritious stew:
The Buran-Kaya rockshelter is located in the Crimean Mountains (Ukraine) near the Black Sea. Discovered in 1990, it is one of the earliest and richest Middle to Upper Paleolithic sites in the region. The assemblage of greatest interest has been directly dated and is 32,000 years old.
In a recently published study (open access), Sandrine Prat and colleagues report on the human remains and activities at Buran-Kaya. The site contains 162 human bones — mostly fragmented crania — representing 5 individuals (an adult, subadult, and juvenile). The skulls show unequivocal evidence of processing; cut marks have created multiple and parallel striations. Non-human crania at the site do not show similar signs of processing. The human heads were being treated differently. The question is why.
The authors suggest the cutting “could be interpreted as a mortuary ritual, either ritual cannibalism or a specific mortuary practice: post-mortem disarticulation processes of corpses for secondary disposal,” and is evidence of symbolic behavior related to the dead. This is a plausible suggestion. The authors then suggest a distinction between “ritual cannibalism” and “dietary cannibalism.” If ethnographic analogues are any guide, these suggestions are not mutually exclusive: the processing of human heads could have been all these things.
Among hunter-gatherers, the killing and eating of big-game is never simply a dietary act. Food is symbolic; rituals surround its preparation and consumption. If this is true of ordinary big-game, it would have been doubly true of extraordinary big-game. Hunting large mammals is a dangerous business and would have been most dangerous when humans were the prey. So when human head soup was on the menu, the ritualism surely was intense. Knowing this, it seems unlikely we can ever distinguish “ritual” and “dietary” cannibalism: the two are intertwined.
Following the feast (if it was that), the crania could been specially treated in some kind of mortuary ritual. We don’t know whether the crania belonged to strangers/enemies or relatives/friends. If the former, the crania may have been curated out of respect. If the latter, the crania may have been curated for different reasons. Perhaps they were symbols and sources of power or prowess.
The processed crania from Buran-Kaya are hardly unique; we find evidence of similar treatments, widely spread in space and time, throughout the Middle and Upper Paleolithic. Whether it was cannibalistic or mortuary or both, it seems likely that head hunting and handling was symbolically and ritualistically charged.
Prat S, Péan SC, Crépin L, Drucker DG, Puaud SJ, Valladas H, Lázničková-Galetová M, van der Plicht J, & Yanevich A (2011). The oldest anatomically modern humans from far southeast europe: direct dating, culture and behavior. PloS one, 6 (6) PMID: 21698105