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Skull cup, found in Gough's cave, Somerset, England. About 14,700 years old, this skull bears cut marks inflicted shortly after death to remove soft tissues and shape the skull into a cup.

Human Skull ‘Cups’ and Butchered Bones Lead Archaeologists to One Conclusion – Neolithic Cannibals

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Archaeologists in Spain have made a grim discovery in a deep cave in the south-west of the country. They believe that they have found the remains of some Stone Age people who were butchered and probably cannibalized. Experts have found cups made out of the victims’ skulls. The find is adding to the debate on the phenomenon of cannibalism in prehistory.

A team led by “Jonathan Santana of Durham University and his colleagues at the Universidad de Cantabria and the Universidad de La Laguna” made the discovery reports Forbes. They had been exploring the cave known locally as Cueva de El Toro when they found the bones of seven people, which demonstrate clear signs of being skinned and butchered. The remains included four adults and three children and among these, they found ‘human skull cups’. Preliminary dating has concluded that the bones are up to 8,000 years old.

Neolithic skull cup from Cueva de El Toro, Spain. (Dr. Jonathan Santana-Cabrera / Durham University)

Neolithic skull cup from Cueva de El Toro, Spain. ( Dr. Jonathan Santana-Cabrera / Durham University)

Skull Cups

The team leader has written that the cups demonstrate “signs of de-fleshing, breakage by percussion and careful retouching of the broken borders” according to Forbes. A great deal of skill, not t mention a sturdy stomach, was needed to make the cups as it involved skinning the head, extracting brain matter, removing facial bones , and cutting off the top of the cranium which had to have its edges smoothed.

This is not the first time that these macabre cups have been found in Spain. They have been unearthed in caves in the south and north of the country. The skulls cups that have been found at Cueva de El Toro, are similar to these other remains. However, these vessels are more refined and better made than the other examples discovered. It appears that the skulls from the Spanish cave had been treated in boiling water and possibly polished.

Figure detailing the cut marks on the Neolithic skull cups from Cueva de El Toro, Spain. ( Dr. Jonathan Santana-Cabrera / Durham University)

There is plenty of evidence of cannibalism having a long history among early humans in prehistoric Europe. A recent find in south-eastern France of the bones of six Neanderthals also displayed clear signs of cannibalism. There was evidence of “cut marks made by stone tools , complete dismemberment of the individuals, and finger bones that look as if they’ve been gnawed” reports Cosmos.

Theories of Cannibalism and the Skull Caps

Researchers contend that cannibalism was not a result of mindless brutality but was because of complex factors. One theory argues that cannibalism was often related to conflict, so-called ‘war cannibalism’. Victors often ate the defeated because it was believed it gave them strength or magical powers. The cups could have been trophies. There are many examples of this in history, for instance, a Bulgar Khan had a slain Byzantine Emperor’s skull made into a drinking vessel.

Bulgarian Khan ‘Krum the Fearsome’ feasts with his nobles as a servant brings the skull of Nikephoros I, fashioned into a skull cup, full of wine. (Soerfm / Public Domain)

Bulgarian Khan ‘Krum the Fearsome’ feasts with his nobles as a servant brings the skull of Nikephoros I, fashioned into a skull cup, full of wine. (Soerfm / Public Domain )

However, there is no evidence of artifacts such as spear points or flint knives at the cave in Spain that would indicate that the six victims were killed in some clan or tribal war. One theory is that environmental changes, especially during interglacial periods led to a decline in the large mammals, such as bison, which early human hunters depended on for their protein.

According to the Journal of Archaeological Journal “environmental upheavals, including depletion of prey biomass… contributed to the rise of cannibalistic behavior”. The six Neanderthals that were found butchered for meat in France were eaten by others who needed their flesh to survive during a famine caused by climate change.

Are the Spanish Skull Caps an Example of Funerary Cannibalism?

The team of experts who found the skull cups in the Spanish cave does not believe that environmental change caused a famine that led to the cannibalism. Instead, they believe that the butchered remains are evidence of ‘funerary cannibalism’ which was very common in the Stone Age, reports Forbes. This practice was once common among Amazonian tribes such as the Warri. It involves consuming the body of the departed so that they can stay part of the clan or tribe or ensure that they have a happy afterlife.

It appears that the butchering and the manufacture of the skulls’ cups occurred in a domestic setting. Research on the remains indicates that at least two were related. This is possibly evidence that a clan or family group cannibalized its dead members for ceremonial or religious purposes, which is very characteristic of funerary cannibalism.

Human remains bones were found along with the skull cups at the site. (simanlaci / Adobe)

Human remains bones were found along with the skull cups at the site. ( simanlaci / Adobe)

The find in Spain is still being investigated and experts will continue to argue about what led to the butchering of the remains presumably for human consumption and the manufacture of skulls cups . There are those who argue that there is no clear evidence of cannibalism found. If the Spanish team is correct it would seem that funerary cannibalism was widely practiced and that skulls cups were used for ritual purposes during the Neolithic period in Iberia and beyond.

Top image: Skull cup, found in Gough's cave, Somerset, England. About 14,700 years old, this skull bears cut marks inflicted shortly after death to remove soft tissues and shape the skull into a cup. Source: Soerfm / Public Domain .

By Ed Whelan

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