History

Prehistoric Brits Ate People and Then Turned Their Bones Into Art

Excavations of human remains in England show that the bodies were eaten, with the skulls shaped into cups and the bones engraved, suggesting ritualistic associations.

Engraved artifacts from Gough’s Cave. | Bello et al.
Engraved artifacts from Gough’s Cave. | Bello et al.

Cheddar Gorge and nearby areas of Somerset in England are world famous for their cheddar cheeses, many of which are aged in caves. But Gough’s Cave, located in the gorge, is also famous for something else entirely: cannibalism.

One of the most extensive assemblages of human bones showing evidence for cannibalism was found in the cave over the course of multiple excavations.

A bone from the assemblage, a right radius (forearm), has zig-zag marks on one side. New research on the marks, published in the journal PLOS ONE, concludes that they are engravings, which were likely incised on the bone by whomever consumed the flesh of the person around 14,700 years ago.

The discovery follows prior analysis in 2011 of human skulls of the same age from the cave. Lead author Silvia Bello and colleagues Simon Parfitt and Chris Stringer, all from the Natural History Museum in London, determined that the skulls were “scrupulously cleaned” of soft tissues and otherwise modified to produce cups.

Taken together, “the remains have provided unequivocal evidence that the bodies were eaten, but the shaping of the skulls into skull cups and the engraving of the radius strongly suggest that this act [cannibalism] wasn’t for nutritional and survival reasons only, but it retains some ritualistic connotations,” said Bello, who is the lead author of the new paper by the same team, which includes another colleague from the museum, Rosalind Wallduck.

An engraved kapala. | Wikimedia Commons

“None of the remains seem to reveal any obvious signs of trauma,” Bello added, “suggesting that the ‘consumed’ probably died of natural causes rather than a violent death. If this is the case, it is probable that the consumers and the consumed belonged to the same group.”

The practice might then have been endocannibalism, which refers to eating the flesh of a person — usually in a mortuary context — after the individual has died.

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Different forms of endocannibalism have occurred around the world. The Amahuaca tribe of Peru, for example, would grind human bones with corn, mix them with liquid, and drink the resulting gruel.

In India, members of the Aghori religious sect still use bones from human corpses to craft skull cups, known as kapalas. Early Tibetan kapalas have been found with elaborate carvings on them, or mounted with precious metals and jewels.

The prehistoric people of Gough’s Cave were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived off the land.

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“The climate warmed up suddenly about 15,000 years ago, and was nearly as warm as today in the UK, with animals like horse and red deer around, and on the menu,” Stringer said. “There is also evidence of worked mammoth ivory at the site, indicating that these groups traveled into colder regions as well, utilizing old tusks lying on the landscape, or maybe even keeping such materials over several generations.”

The skull cups and engraved arm bone were certainly long-lasting items too, showing how such natural materials can remain intact over long periods under certain conditions.

A chamber and mirror pool inside Gough’s Cave. | Wikimedia Commons

There doesn’t appear to be a connection between the prehistoric Brits and the other global practitioners of endocannibalism. Evidence for cannibalism among Neanderthals dating to early periods has also been found, but again, the researchers do not believe that there was a connection to the activities of Gough’s Cave.

“These Gough’s people were separated by more than 20,000 years from the last Neanderthals and the first modern-looking humans in Europe, so it’s unlikely to be the continuity of a tradition,” Stringer explained. “I think these traditions probably developed independently of each other.”

The zig-zag design was a common one for the period. Bello shared that several lissoirs — bone tools used to smooth hides — from sites dated to the Magdalenian period (17,000–12,000 years ago) in France are engraved with similar artistic motifs.

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The researchers believe that the arm bone engraving was meaningful, though, beyond a familiar and presumably easily-produced design.

“The act of engraving has often been associated with ways of remembering events, places or circumstances — a sort of extension of our memory outside our body,” Bello said. “In this case, however, the engraving of this bone may have been a sort of memory more directly related to the deceased, and an intrinsic part of the cannibalistic ritual itself.”

While the engraving’s precise meaning may never be determined, the researchers are currently conducting DNA research on some of the excavated prehistoric human bones. 

The findings, Stringer said, “should help us to answer the question of how closely related the Gough’s people were to each other, to other human groups in Britain, and also their relationship to populations in continental Europe, from where they must have originated.”

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