Natural History Museum reveals earliest human skull-cups used by ice age Britons

Press release - 17 February 2011

14,700-year-old human skull-cup to go on display to visitors on 1 March 2011

Research published today by palaeoanthropologists at the Natural History Museum, London, reveals Britain’s strange past with the earliest known examples of human skull-cups (containers made from human skulls) in the world, and the first evidence for their manufacture in the UK. A replica of one of the specimens will go on display at the Museum on 1 March 2011 for three months.

While the tradition of using braincases as drinking cups or containers has been documented in a variety of past, and even present, communities, archaeological evidence is extremely rare.  Although the Cro-Magnons (European early modern humans) were skilled hunter-gatherers, tool makers and artists, they also developed complex ways of treating their dead, some of which are rather disturbing to our modern sensibilities. The three skull-cups identified among human bones from Gough’s Cave, Somerset, are the only physical evidence of skull-cups from our forebears in the UK, and Museum research reveals for the first time the intricate process involved in this unusual practice.

Dr Silvia Bello, palaeontologist and lead author, describes 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. All in all it was a very painstaking process given the tools available’

Professor Chris Stringer, who helped excavate one of the skull-cups in 1987, said ‘This research shows how extensive the processing of these human remains was. It’s impossible to know how the skull-cups were used back then, but in recent examples they may hold blood, wine or food during rituals.’

At about 14,700* years old, the skull-cups from Gough’s Cave are the oldest directly dated examples in the world. A precise replica of one of the skull-cups, complete with cut marks, will go on display in the Natural History Museum’s Dinosaur Way from 1 March 2011 for three months. For more information on the human skull-cups, the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB) and the forthcoming display please visit www.nhm.ac.uk/human-evolution

Ends

Notes for editors

*Based on the latest ultrafiltered radiocarbon dating techniques the skulls cups are 14,700 cal BP 

  • The Natural History Museum research is published today, Wednesday 16 February, in research journal PLoS ONE by Dr Silvia Bello, Simon Parfitt and Professor Chris Stringer. 
  • Citation: Bello SM, Parfitt SA, Stringer CB (2011) Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17026. 
  • Professor Chris Stringer directs the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project (www.ahobproject.org), a collaboration involving archaeologists, palaeontologists and earth scientists from a number of different institutes. Some of the key questions AHOB addresses are the timing and nature of the earliest human occupation of Britain and whether Britain was completely abandoned by humans for over 100,000 years, between 180,000 and 60,000 years ago. Professor Stringer’s award-winning book Homo britannicus outlines the results of the first phase of the AHOB project, and a new book The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain by the project team has just been published by Elsevier. 
  • Gough’s Cave is located in Cheddar Gorge in south-west England. Interest in the cave as an archaeological site dates from the nineteenth century. Between 1987 and 1992 rescue excavations in the cave were undertaken by archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists from the Natural History Museum in London, and Nottingham University. Visitors are welcome at Cheddar Caves & Gorge, the home of Cheddar Man, where they can explore the cave where Britain's first-ever cannibal discoveries were made by the Natural History Museum team.  They can also try their hand at Stone Age survival skills and cave painting with hunter-gatherer demonstrators, and find out more about cannibalism as part of the society which flourished here 14,700 years ago. www.cheddarcaves.co.uk, 01934 742343, Cheddar Caves & Gorge, Cheddar, Somerset, UK, BS27 3QF. 
  • Winner of Visit London’s 2010 Evening Standard’s Peoples Choice Best London for Free Experience Award and Best Family Fun Award the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in more than 68 countries.