Ancient Britons Drank from Cups Made of Skulls

Skeletal bones discovered in southwest England imply that the ancient Britons were not averse to using human skulls as drinking vessels. The three human braincases were so meticulously crafted that their usage as bowls to store liquid seems to be the only logical explanation.

The 14,700-year-old artifacts were found in Somerset’s Gough’s Cave. According to researchers at the Natural History Museum in London, ceremonial use of the skull cups seems possible.

“If you look around the world there are examples of skull-cups in more recent times – in Tibetan culture, in Fiji in Oceania, and in India,” Dr. Silvia Bello, a paleontologist and the primary author of a study on the topic published in the journal PLoS One, made this statement.

She told the BBC “So, skulls have been used as drinking bowls, and because of the similarity of the Gough’s Cave skulls to these other examples, we imagine that that’s what these ancient people were using them for also.”

On the southern border of the Mendip Hills, in the Cheddar Gorge, a deep limestone canyon is where Gough’s Cave is located. There were first palaeo-investigations made a century ago, and the Natural History Museum today houses many of the artifacts (NHM).

The location is notable, especially for the 1903 discovery of “Cheddar Man,” a human skeleton that dates to roughly 10,000 years ago.

However, the owners and users of the skulls mentioned in the PLoS One research really come from a different era of British Isles history.

In a series of ice ages, there was a brief warm spike that made it possible for people living in southern Europe to go north into what would otherwise have been a completely hostile landscape.

These hunter-gatherers, or Cro-Magnons as we now refer to them, survived off their wits and, it appears, occasionally eaten human flesh.

Famously, Gough’s Cave contained the remnants of human bones that had been processed in the same manner as animal bones at the location to extract marrow.

Cannibalism offends our modern sensibilities, yet these folks lived in a different era, according to Dr. Bello:

“They were a one man band; they were going out, hunting, butchering and then eating their kill. And they were extremely skilled at what they did, but then that’s how they survived.”

“I think the production of the skull-cups is ritualistic. If the purpose was simply to break the skulls to extract the brain to eat it, there are much easier ways to do that.”

“If food was the objective, the skull would be highly fragmented. But here you can really see they tried to preserve most of the skull bone; the cut marks tell us they tried to clean the skull, taking off every piece of soft tissue so that they could then modify it very precisely. They were manufacturing something.”

Professor Chris Stringer, an NHM colleague, assisted in the 1987 excavation of one of the skull-cups and is a co-author on the study.

“We’ve known that these bones were treated in this way for 20 years; it’s been evident that there were cut marks on the skulls,” he told BBC News.

“But by applying the latest microscopic techniques and the experience we’ve got in working on butchered animal remains, as well as human remains, we can start to build up a much more detailed picture of how the Gough’s Cave remains were treated. Yes, cannibalism is the most likely explanation. What we can’t say is whether these people were killed to be eaten, or whether they died naturally. Were they even members of the same group?”

Furthermore, it is impossible to determine with absolute certainty how the cups were utilized, despite the fact that in more modern instances of this practice, they have been used to hold food, wine, and blood during rituals.

The Gough’s Cave skull-cups would be the oldest known examples in the world at roughly 14,700 years old.

The museum intends to display a detailed model of one of the skull-cups so that visitors can gain a fuller understanding of these ancient Britons’ practices.

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