Evidence Of Cannibalism In Ancient Humans

The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London. As the Ice Age was ending, humans fashioned skulls into drinking vessels and left teeth marks on bones.

Ancient humans living in southern England towards the end of the last ice age made human skulls into drinking vessels. We don't know, however, if this was a way of revering lost loved ones, or glorifying in the defeat of enemies.

Uncomfortable as it may be to admit, cannibalism was a widespread practice through human history. Its meaning has varied; for some, it was considered an act of veneration for the departed and for others it was a form of triumphalism over enemies. Either way, dead humans make a protein-rich addition to the diet, although the cost can be high through the transmission of diseases such as Kuru

Many cultures also make a ritual out of the consumption of other humans, and evidence has emerged from Gough's Cave, Somerset, that this practice has deep roots. Dr. Silvia Bello of the London Natural History Museum found evidence that 14,700-year-old human skulls were shaped to drink from.

The limestone cave has a long history, not just as a site of human occupation, but as a site of study. Discovered in the late 19th century, it hosts the oldest post-ice age evidence of human habitation in Britain, suggesting humans migrated from Spain and France almost as soon as the ice retreated. Since there was still a land bridge across what is now the English Channel, they would not have needed boats to make the journey.

Bones from half a dozen people and many animals were found jumbled together in the cave. Many were removed in a haphazard fashion so the cave could be used as a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, the human remnants, including skulls, are in good enough condition to be prime research subjects.

The cannibal connection for the Gough's Cave bones has been made before, with Bello having been part of a team that showed flesh was butchered from the cave's human bones in the same way as that of animals.

"The human remains have been the subject of several studies,” says Bello. “In a previous analysis, we could determine that the cranial remains had been carefully modified to make skull-cups. During this research, however, we've identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier research. We've found indubitable evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow."

In particular, Bello reports in the Journal of Human Evolution, signs of human teeth marks on many of the non-skull bones, which the paper calls, “incontrovertible evidence for cannibalism.” The treatment of the bones was similar enough to that found at other sites of the Magdalenian culture in central and western Europe that Bello concludes cannibalism was widespread throughout Europe at the time, rather than being a specific adaptation to living so close to the retreating ice sheets.

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