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A study published in Quaternary Science Reviews, one of the world's leading scientific journals, suggests that cannibalism may have been a routine burial practice in Europe around 15,000 years ago.

Stating that cannibalism was not an isolated incident, the study suggested that people ate their dead not out of necessity but as part of their culture.

Focusing on the Magdalenians, who lived between 11,000 and 17,000 years ago in the late Upper Paleolithic period, the study examined 59 Magdalenian sites in Germany, Spain, Russia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic and Portugal, mostly in France.

The researchers were able to interpret the burial culture at 25 of these sites, and found evidence of cannibalism at 15 sites, including human remains with chewing marks, skull bones with cut marks, and bones deliberately broken in a pattern associated with the extraction of bone marrow for food.

The researchers said its frequent occurrence at sites in northern and western Europe suggests that cannibalism was a burial practice - rather than one to supplement nutrition - that was common in Magdalenian culture.

"It is undeniable that the frequency of cases of cannibalism at Magdalenian sites exceeds the frequency of this behavior in earlier or later human groups, suggesting that cannibalism of the dead was a method used by Magdalenian people to dispose of their dead," the study said.

Silvia Bello, paleoanthropologist and lead researcher at the National Museum of History and one of the study's authors, said in a press release that cannibalism "was not practiced only out of necessity," adding, "These people ate their dead instead of burying them. This is interesting in itself because it is the oldest evidence of cannibalism as a funerary practice known so far."

The researchers were also able to extract genetic information from eight sites and combine it with archaeological evidence to identify a relationship between burial behavior and genetic ancestry.

They also found that there were two distinct ancestral groups in the region at the time, the Magdalenian and Epigravetian, and that these two groups represented geographically distinct human cultures.

The researchers found that people from the Magdalenian culture in northwestern Europe preferred to eat their dead, while people from the Epigravetian culture preferred to bury their dead without practicing cannibalism.

According to the study, the presence of regular burials during the Upper Magdalenian period was due to the migration of individuals with Epigravetian-associated lineages to areas previously inhabited by people with Magdalenian-associated lineages who practiced funeral cannibalism.

The study authors said these are preliminary results and the results need to be analyzed on a larger scale to fully examine the findings.