As the ice was retreating across the UK around 14,000 years ago, a group of humans huddled in a cave to partake in a grisly ritual. They filleted the arm of one of their dead, eating the remains while engraving the bones with a symbolic pattern, and making the skull into a cup from which to drink. Evidence now suggests that this extreme act was actually some form of cannibalistic ritual.
Discovered in a cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset in 1987, people have long realized that the macabre remains were most likely the result of cannibalism. The assortment of human bones belonged to a three-year-old child, a teenager, and two adults. They were found among other butchered animal remains and flints, and the cut marks on the bones suggested that the meat had been removed.
What was less clear, however, was the reasoning behind the feast. Some have argued that the cannibalism was the result of hard times, that during a particularly harsh winter the beleaguered humans turned on each other to pull through the cold, hungry months. But others have disputed this, and suggest that this was not an act of desperation, but one of respect and honoring the dead.
Now a new paper published in PLOS One has come to the conclusion that the cannibalism that occurred in this cave in southern England some 14,700 years ago was indeed part of a ritual that involved not only consuming their dead’s flesh, but also marking their bones.
They found that there were different sets of cut marks on one arm bone. One set was consistent with that of butchering, matching those that have been found on other animal remains in the cave, as well as human teeth marks. But the second set formed a zig-zag pattern that was distinct from the butchery marks, and seem to have been made delicately and deliberately.
This fits well with the skulls that they have also found in the cave. The craniums seem to have been purposefully modified, with flesh carefully removed, before the rough edges and points were chipped off to make drinking from it easier. This discovery means that these bones are the earliest example of engraved human bones ever found.
It seems then that the cannibalism may have been a ritual to honor and remember the dead. “Perhaps the engraving of this bone may have told a sort of story, more related to the deceased than the surrounding landscape,” explained Dr Silvia Bello, who led the research. “It could be that they are indicative of the individual, events from their life, the way they died, or the cannibalistic ritual itself.”