Ancient Britons `ate each other`

Last Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 09:31

London: Ancient Britons indulged
in cannibalism. In fact, they not only ate each other but
also made cups and bowls from the skulls of their victims, a
discovery has suggested.

A team led by the Natural History Museum has made the
gruesome discovery of the remains of three humans in Cheddar
Gorge. The remains, including that of a child, appear to have
been killed for food, their bodies butchered and then eaten.
The bones showed precision cuts to extract the maximum
meat and the skulls had been carved into cups and bowls for
drinking, say palaeontologists.

The fragments, 14700 years old, are thought to be
the oldest examples in the world of skull cups and the first
evidence of ritual killing in Britain, `The Daily Telegraph`
newspaper reported.

What is particularly horrific is that at the time,
humans knew how to bury their dead and so were not savages
meaning the remains are most likely the result of premeditated
cannibalism, says the team.

"At the time life was very tough. Cannibalism would
have been a good way of removing groups competing with you and
getting food for yourself. There was also a feeling that if
you ate your enemy you gained some of his power," said Prof
Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum.

At the time Britain was just emerging from the Ice Age
and the cavemen -- believed to be Cro Magnons originally from
France, would have come to Britain from the Netherlands in
summer, probably following animal herds migrating across land
that is now the North Sea.

Just a few hundred strong, the hunter gatherers
would have mainly lived off reindeer and horses but when times
got tough it is believed they would have fought and eaten
competing groups.

Prof Stringer said they were not savages and knew
exactly what they were doing. "What is more sinister is that
these were quite sophisticated hunter gatherers, very like
us", he said.

"They could make tools and painted cave art. They also
had quite complex burials for the people they were not eating,
treating the dead with reverence. No one can be sure, exactly
what happened but the three cadavers, found in Gough`s Cave,
Somerset, show signs of being chopped up for food", he added.

The 41 pieces of bone, found in 1987 but only just
fully analysed, were broken up to remove the marrow and cut
marks shows that they were meticulously cleaned to remove all
the soft tissues.

Most gruesomely the skulls were shown to have been
smashed into cups, the hair scalped from the head, and the
tongues and eyes gouged out. The sharp edges were also cleaned
up so they could be used a drinking cup perhaps to consume
"blood, wine or food" during the meal.

But once the feast had been finished the the cannibals
discarded the bones and the skull cups and moved on.
Dr Silvia Bello, the lead palaeontologist, described
the production of the skull cups.

"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. It`s a very
painstaking process given the tools available", he said.

The findings have been published in the `Public
Library of Science One` journal.

PTI



First Published: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 09:31

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