Ancient Britons used skulls as cups

Scientists have uncovered human skulls that were used by ancient Britons as drinking cups in some kind of ritual.

The 14,700-year-old artefacts were discovered in Gough's Cave, Somerset, and have been analysed by experts from London's Natural History Museum.



Three skull-cups belonging to two adults and a young child have been identified among the human bones from the cave.



They are believed to be the oldest directly dated skull-cups and the only examples known from the British Isles.



The brain cases were fashioned in such a meticulous way that their use as bowls to hold liquid seems the only reasonable explanation, scientists said.



Gough's Cave is in the Cheddar Gorge, a deep limestone canyon on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills. In 1903 "Cheddar Man", the complete skeleton of a male dating to about 10,000 years ago, was found at the site.



Scientists said the evidence demonstrated that early Britons were skilled in post-mortem manipulation of human bodies. Results of the research suggest the processing of cadavers for the consumption of bone marrow, accompanied by meticulous shaping of cranial vaults.



The distribution of cut marks indicates that the skulls were scrupulously "cleaned" of any soft tissues, and subsequently modified by the removal of the facial region.



The vaults were also "retouched", possibly to make the broken edges more regular. This manipulation suggests the shaping of skulls to produce skull-cups



Lead author Silvia Bello, who is based in the Natural History Museum's department of palaeontology, said: "We suspected that these early humans were highly skilled at manipulating human bodies once they died, and our research reveals just what great anatomists they were.



"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 team's findings have been published in PLoS One.



Although the team found evidence that some of the flesh and bone marrow from the skulls was eaten, they concluded that cannibalism was unlikely to have been the main purpose of the modifications.



They said that at sites where cannibalism has been found, skulls are broken into pieces and there is often damage at the top of the skull from an impact.



"At Gough's Cave, there was clear determination to preserve the cranial vault as complete as possible," Dr Bello said. "It is likely that this was part of some symbolic ritual and not mere necessity."



Professor Chris Stringer said the amount of effort that went into making the skull-cups suggested they served a special purpose.



He added: "We do not know the exact circumstances for Gough's.



"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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own