TORONTO — Archeologists working in Gabon have discovered a cave with human remains that show evidence of ancient body modification that is unique to the area, according to a new study.
The findings, published in the August volume of the journal Antiquity, detail the discovery of thousands of pre-colonial human remains making up at least 28 people, along with hundreds of valuable metal artifacts from the 14th to 15th centuries AD that were dropped or lowered into the Iroungou cave in Gabon, on the Atlantic coast of Central Africa.
The “wealth and size” of the find could indicate that these “were elite individuals and their sacrificed retainers,” according to a release.
The discovery was made by an international team of researchers who were exploring the Iroungou Cave, first discovered in 1992, which is only accessible through a hole in the roof – meaning the team had to rappel down 25 metres to reach the remains.
The cave formation meant the remains would have been dropped or lowered through the hole, and radiocarbon dating revealed this happened on at least two occasions in the 14th to 15th centuries prior to colonial Portuguese contact, the study says.
“Very little is known about the burial practices in pre-colonial West Central Africa, due to the lack of written sources and the poor preservation of human remains, but the preservation of the human remains in Iroungou Cave is exceptional,” said lead study author Dr. Sebastien Villotte in the release.
The preservation of the remains allowed researchers to identify at least 28 individuals who were interred in the cave, both male and female across a range of age groups. Researchers hope to recover DNA from some of them.
All the adults found in the cave had evidence of body modification, where all of their upper incisor teeth were removed earlier in life – dramatically changing the shape of the face, and the study posits it may have served as an indicator that they belonged to a certain group or had special status.
“Intentional dental modification has a long history in Africa, but the removal of all four upper incisors is a relatively uncommon form,” Villotte said in the release. “It has been reported in West Central Africa, so this find suggests it may have a long history and possible continuity.”
The goods buried in the cave feature metal objects like knives, axes, hoes and jewelry, with much of it crafted from iron, which is found locally. Some items were made of copper which would have been imported from hundreds of kilometres away, the study explains.
The combination of body modification and wealth is unique to west central Africa, the study states, leading researchers to believe that this was a special burial place “for important individuals and possibly their accompanying dead, sacrificed retainers,” Villotte said.
Researchers plan to return to the site and explore the cave further, and by using 3D models and photogrammetry from previous expeditions to map the site, the team can leave the human remains in place.