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The Prehistoric Feast of the Cannibals of Gough’s Cave

The Prehistoric Feast of the Cannibals of Gough’s Cave

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A new study that examined cut marks on bones in order to distinguish between cannibalism and ritualistic defleshing practices have determined that a very morbid feast took place 15,000 years ago in Gough's Cave near Bristol in England. The researchers wanted to find out whether the butchered remains of adults and children were the result of a funerary ritual, human violence, or a desperate attempt to survive hard times.  

Gough’s Cave, which is 115 meters (377ft) deep and 3.4 km (2.1 miles) long, was first excavated in the late 1880s and has been extensively researched since then. Within the cave, scientists have found numerous human and animal remains with clearly visible signs of butchery. The human remains belonged to around 5 or 7 people, including a three-year-old child and two adolescents. All of them had cut-marks and breakage consistent with defleshing and eating. Moreover, some of the skulls had been transformed into ornaments known as ''skull cups'', which were used as drinking vessels.  

A chamber and mirror pool inside Gough's Cave, Cheddar, called Alladdin's Cave. (Rwendland/CC BY-SA 3.0)

A chamber and mirror pool inside Gough's Cave, Cheddar, called Alladdin's Cave. (Rwendland/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The BBC reports on research conducted on the bones retrieved from Gough’s Cave. According to scientists, the remains do not display any evidence of violence prior to death, so the people who were consumed were not killed and eaten as a result of conflict. It was concluded that this was an example either of cannibalism or the removal of flesh from bones after death, which was occasionally done for ritualistic purposes. A recent study, published in August in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, aimed to determine which of these two scenarios occurred.

The scientific team, led by Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum in London, UK, explained that cannibalism and ritualistic defleshing can be distinguished based on frequency, distribution and characteristics of cut marks:

“Cannibalized human remains, however, present a uniform cut mark distribution, which can be associated with disarticulation of persistent and labile articulations, and the scalping and filleting of muscles. For secondary burials where modification occurred after a period of decay, disarticulation marks are less common and the disarticulation of labile joints is rare,” the team reports in their paper.

A skull cap found in Gough’s Cave with evidence of cannibalism

A skull cap found in Gough’s Cave with evidence of cannibalism (public domain)

The team concluded that the cut marks on the remains found in Gough’s Cave were indeed the result of cannibalism.

"It is quite symptomatic. You can see the same type of pattern on the other animals. You can really say they were butchering the animals in the same way, [for] the meaty bits,” said Bello [via BBC].  “Some of the modification, particularly for the fingers, [shows] they were probably chewing to suck the grease off. The presence of human tooth marks on human bones is probably the best evidence of cannibalism."

In the published report, the researchers suggest that cannibalism in prehistoric times was often practiced as a way of insulting enemies. But Bello believes that the people whose bones were discovered died naturally. The time of their death took place during the Ice Age, when food resources were very limited, which may explain the necessity to consume human remains. At the same time, the researchers suggest that people from the Gough's Cave used the skull cups as part of ritual practices. 

The first known examples of cannibalistic practices among humans date back around 100,000 years, identified in both France and China. As Liz Leafloor from Ancient Origins reported in July 24, 2015:

''The bones of a child from 100,000 years ago display gnawed tooth marks, and researchers are trying to determine if this is evidence of cannibalism in the prehistoric Xuchang Man of China.

The two pieces of thigh bone were found 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from Lingjing historical site in Xuchang, Henan province, China. They’re believed to belong to “Xuchang Man”, an extinct species of early human with possible links to modern day Chinese, reports news site DNA.

The bones show “signs of biting and gnawing” lead archaeologist Li Zhanyang said. However, it has not been determined if the marks on the remains were from animal predators or other humans. Other instances of cannibalism have been discovered in other populations, and “the possibility of fellow hominids eating nutritious content from the bones could not be ruled out,” Li added.

These finds come nearly a decade after the important discovery of partial human fossilized skulls found in Henan, which were used in identifying the “Xuchang” species of hominin. The skulls, unearthed in fragments, are thought to date back between 80,000 and 100,000 years ago. These skulls are important to archaeology and anthropology as Xuchang Man fossil finds shed light on a period in history that remains mostly mysterious to scientists, and helps them connect the dots on the genetic lineage of modern-day Chinese.

The Xuchang skulls were hailed as the greatest find since the discovery of the Peking Man fossils in Beijing. Remains from the two species are filling in gaps of understanding regarding prehistoric humans in China.''

Top image: Gough’s Cave (public domain).

By Natalia Klimzcak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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