Skull Cups and Chewed Bones: Cannibalism was Ritual Behavior during Stone Age say Researchers
When scientists examined the cracked skulls and gnawed bones found in a cave in England, they recognized the grisly signs of cannibalism. Archaeological findings now indicate that the dwellers of Gough’s Cave repeatedly defleshed and ate remains in prehistoric Britain, and hollowed out skulls to use as drinking vessels.
According to Science World Report, recent examinations and radiocarbon testing of the human bones and skulls from Gough’s Cave in Somerset reveal that the remains were cannibalized and deposited during a series of occupations approximately 14,700 years ago, during the Magdalenian period. The prehistoric people that visited the cave frequently left behind a large cache of animal and human bones.
Partial skull found at Gough's Cave, Somerset, England. Facial Remains showing cutting-marks, where the meat has been removed, a clear sign of cannibalism. Wikimedia Commons
In a news release, Dr. Silvia Bello from the Natural History Museum’s Department of Earth Sciences, and lead researcher of the work said, “The human remains have been the subject of several studies. In a previous analysis, we could determine that the cranial remains had been carefully modified to make skull-cups. During this research, however, we’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier. We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow.”
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A Palaeolithic human skull from Gough's Cave that has been identified as having potential cannibalistic connotations. Researchers believe this object might have been used as a drinking vessel. Wikimedia Commons
“The Magdalenian was a period that saw the development new flint tools, reindeer hunting, cave painting, carvings and engravings on bone or ivory. But the new evidence from Gough’s Cave suggests that cannibalism was also an important part of the culture with Stone Age (or Cro-Magnon) man using a mortuary practice that combined intensive processing and consumption of bodies with the ritual use of skull-cups,” reports Culture24.
This practice may be more widespread than previously assumed, and researchers say it was a tradition repeated across Europe at other Magdalenian sites.
Recent reports highlight that prehistoric Anatolians removed flesh from bones and decorated the remains. Researchers found that Stone Age people in Turkey cut the flesh off the bones of the newly dead and then painted the remains and buried them with animal horns and skulls. Defleshing is not an uncommon mortuary practice across ancient cultures. It is not known why this was practiced on dead bodies, but it is thought that it was used as a ritual to assist the dead to transition to the afterlife.
Graves from Körtik Tepe Pof 8,000 to 7,000 B.C. showed burials underneath houses; plastering of skeleton with cut marks on the skull. Credit: Körtik photo archive/European Journal of Archaeology
Still other reports on the analysis of bones at hunting sites for Neanderthals in France reveal that remains of newly deceased were cut, beaten, and fractured. Researchers are hesitant to confirm it as evidence of cannibalism, but instead suggest it may have been elaborate mortuary rituals.
Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England, was first discovered in the 1880s, and was initially used as a show cave. During excavations, which ended in 1997, human bones were found intermingled with animal remains, all showing butchering and carving marks. Also recovered at the site were flint, bone, antler and ivory artifacts. A carving of a mammoth, dating back 13,000 years, was found there in 2007.
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A notable find at the caves was the Cheddar Man, the remains of a man who died a violent death in 7150 B.C. from a blow to the head. His remains are regarded as Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton.
A replica of the skeleton is exhibited in the "Cheddar Man and the Cannibals" museum in Cheddar village, Somerset. Sergio Pepe/Flickr
Graphic mortuary traditions of prehistoric ancestors tend to make modern polite society squeamish, and yet as recently as the 1700s health practitioners and chemists recommended ground skull powder as an effective treatment for “illness of the brain.” Perhaps even now we’re not so removed from our prehistoric past.
Research findings by Dr. Bello and colleagues have been published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
Featured Image: Cannibal feast on the Island of Tanna, New Hebrides by Charles E. Gordon Frazer (1863-1899). (Public domain)
By Liz Leafloor