Cutmarks and carcass decay

Cutmarks on a cannibalised human skull

Cutmarks on a cannibalised human skull © Dr Silvia Bello

Principal Investigators

Project summary

  • Focus: Studying cut-mark micro-morphometrics and the stage of carcass decay using 3D microscopy
  • Funding: The Leverhulme Trust

Cutmarks are scratches produced when a flint or metal knife strikes the surface of a bone or tooth. Museum researchers are investigating whether cutmarks can be used to determine the stage of carcass decay in ancient remains.

Cutmarks on human remains can relate to funerary practices such as cannibalism or defleshing and body disarticulation. 

The time interval between the death of an organism and the production of cutmarks is often unclear. 

This project will use micro-morphometric characteristics of cutmarks to assess the stage of carcass decay.

We will analyse data collected from experimentation on non-human carcasses and two large human archaeological assemblages using an environmental scanning electron microscope and Alicona 3D InfiniteFocus imaging.

Project background

We are developing criteria to assess the time between an individual's death and cutmarks being made on teeth or bone. This will improve our understanding of carcass acquisition and funerary rituals in ancient human populations. 

Human rib

(B) A human rib from Gough's Cave in Somerset. Scale 10mm. (b1) Alicona 3D image of slicing cutmarks on the caudal end of the rib. Scale 250µm. © Dr Silvia Bello


Hunting vs scavenging

It is often unclear whether early hominids obtained carcasses through hunting or scavenging. Scientists have debated carcass acquisition strategies for more than 30 years.

This study will provide reference data to distinguish between cuts made on fresh carcasses (ie those hunted by early humans) and decomposing bodies (ie those scavenged by opportunistic early humans).

Funerary rituals

We will also reconstruct funerary practices that involve the cutting of a human body, by distinguishing between cutmarks on a fleshy corpse at the beginning of a funerary ritual and the cleaning of bones after a long period of decomposition. 

Determining when cutmarks were made on human bodies will improve our understanding of past funerary beliefs, enhancing our knowledge of attitudes towards death and dead bodies in the past.


We are using a combination of microscopy techniques to study experimental cutmarks on non-human carcasses and cutmarks from ancient human remains. 

Human collar bone

Superior view of a ~15,000-year-old human collar bone from Gough's Cave in Somerset. Scale 10mm. (a1) Environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) image of clusters of transverse short and deep slicing cutmarks. Scale 1mm. (a2) ESEM detail of cutmarks showing internal microstriations and hertzian cones. Scale 100µm. © Dr Silvia Bello


The key aim of this project is to determine the diagnostic micro-morphometric characteristics of cut-marks. This will improve estimates of the time elapsed between an individual's death and the moment cutmarks were made.

We are creating experimental cutmarks on non-human carcasses at different stages in the decay sequence. These are analysed alongside cut-marked human remains from:

  • the Upper Palaeolithic site of Gough's Cave (Somerset, UK)
  • Mesolithic-Neolithic sites of Padina, Lepenski Vir and Vlasac (Danube Gorges, Serbia) 

We will use environmental scanning electron microscopy and Alicona 3D InfiniteFocus imaging to reconstruct three-dimensional surfaces at a microscopic level.

Discovery, origins and evolution

We study the Earth's origins and environment, and the evolution of life.

Fossil vertebrate research

Investigating the role of vertebrate evolution in shaping the history of life on Earth.

Fossil mammal collection

The collections contains around 250,000 specimens from around the world.