Skulls used as bowls, the rest discarded.
Dr Silvia Bello, from the Natural History Museum’s Department of Earth Sciences, lead researcher of the work said, “The human remains have been the subject of several studies. 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. We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow.”
The presence of human tooth marks on many of the bones provides incontrovertible evidence for cannibalism, the team found. In a wider context, the treatment of the human corpses and the manufacture and use of skull-cups at Gough’s Cave has parallels with other ancient sites in central and western Europe. But the new evidence from Gough’s Cave suggests that cannibalism during the ‘Magdalenian period’ was part of a customary mortuary practice that combined intensive processing and consumption of the bodies with the ritual use of skull-cups.
Simon Parfitt, of University College London, said, “A recurring theme of this period is the remarkable rarity of burials and how commonly we find human remains mixed with occupation waste at many sites. More.
A key difficulty in interpretation is that we have no oral or documentary evidence, just wordless evidence, to interpret. Were the skulls fashioned into cups the remains of enemies? Ancestors? Tribal heroes?
Were the bones mixed with occupation waste the remains of low-status persons (who could be eaten and discarded)? Or were such bones generally thought by the culture to be of no particular significance because the power of the deceased person resided in the skull? Was keeping a person’s skull an act of veneration? Or watchfulness against revenge from beyond the grave?
All these motives are possible. I will shortly be writing at Evolution News & Views about ancient ways of thinking, some of which surprise us, as we discover them in the fragments of traditions today.
Cannibalism itself was probably not principally to satisfy hunger. Rather, from what we know of those who practised it in historical periods, the idea was that one could also acquire the qualities of the cannibalized person.
See also: The search for our earliest ancestors: signals in the noise
Note: Burial is not a self-evident idea. Funerary customs have varied widely. Predictably, today some new digitized customs are developing as well.
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