Ancient Britons slashed facial tissue from the bodies of the dead before using their skulls to hold blood, food and wine in sacrificial rituals, according to research on a set of 14,700-year-old remains found in Gough’s Cave in Somerset.
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
The flesh from the Ice Age skulls is thought to have been eaten in the earliest known acts of human cannibalism, with the remaining parts of each head crafted into cups.
Dr Silvia Bello, a fossil human expert at the Natural History Museum, said the finds showed makers who were “highly skilled at manipulating human bodies once they died.”
“There is clear evidence that the remains at Gough’s Cave were treated in a complex way involving cannibalism and the manufacture of skull cups,” he added.
The three cups are believed to have been taken from the corpses of two adults and a child.
Two were originally found in the 1920s, with the third found in 1987, but an expert team has now been able to use the latest microscopy and radiocarbon dating techniques to pinpoint the age of the skulls.
All of the skulls carried injuries showing precise cut marks to remove their facial bones.
“Our research reveals just what great anatomists they were,” said Bello.
“The cut marks and dents show how the heads were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues shortly after death.
“The skulls were then modified by removing the bones of the face and the base of the skull.
“Finally, these cranial vaults were meticulously shaped into cups by retouching the broken edges, possibly to make them more regular. All in all it was a very painstaking process given the tools available.”
The defleshing signs and removal of bone marrow suggest the flesh was eaten, but the key reason for the emaciations was for use as intricately-fashioned cups, a practice well-known among Vikings and Scythians.
The early modern humans at Gough’s Cave were known as Cro-Magnons, a tribe of skilled hunter-gatherers, toolmakers and artists who carried out complicated procedures on the dead.
“There was clear determination to preserve the cranial vault as completely as possible,” said Dr Bello.
“It is likely that this was part of some symbolic ritual and not mere necessity.”
Professor Chris Stringer, a human origins expert at the museum, said the amount of work that went into forming the skulls suggested they held sacrificial offerings.
“We do not know the exact circumstances for Gough’s,” he admitted.
“At one extreme were these individuals killed, butchered and eaten, with the skull-cups just the end of this event?
"Or could these people have been part of a group who had died singly or together, and were eaten, perhaps in a crisis situation, with the skull cups acting as a final tribute to the dead? We simply do not know.”
The skulls will go on public display in the museum’s Dinosaur Way for three months from March 1 2011. The research findings have been published in the latest issue of research journal PLoS ONE.