New details of human skulls used as ritualistic bowls are coming to light. Found across prehistoric Europe, ranging from the Upper Paleolithic to the Bronze Age (roughly 20,000 to 4,000 years ago), researchers thought the skulls were just a byproduct of cannibalism, but now there may be more to the story.
As reported in the Journal of Archeological Science, the researchers looked at fossils from fives sites across continental Europe, including two locations in Spain, Britain, France, and Germany. These cannibalized human skulls showed traces of precise butchering – marks that were likely caused by the scalping, defleshing, and dismembering of the victim’s head.
At first, the researchers believed the skulls were broken so that the brain could be eaten. However, the bones were cracked in such a way that only the thickest part of the cranial vault remained. This fact combined with the evidence that the skulls were comprehensively scraped of any trace of muscle tissue and skin suggests their goal was to create containers or vessels of some kind, after having removed the brain and meat to feed on.
“A systematic treatment has been identified for the manufacturing of the skull cups," write the the team. "This process begins with the dismemberment of the skull or with the removal of the scalp, resulting in large and parallel slicing marks generated on the upper part of the skull, and continues with the removal of the muscle, characterized by groups of shorter cut marks located near the muscle bundles. Finally, this process ends with a careful breakage of the skulls in order to preserve the cranial vault."
The function of these skull cups remains somewhat of a mystery. In some ancient societies, decapitated heads were war trophies. Some were also used as masks, and there were beliefs that skulls possessed powers or life force. The vessels might have been used for ritual practices. We know that they were associated with acts of human cannibalism but not much more is known.
Not only is the temporal and geographical spread of the skull cups impressive, but the care taken to make them suggests these objects were important artifacts in our prehistoric past.