Gough’s Cave in Somerset provides fascinating insights into the culture of people living in Britain 14,700 years ago.
In this video, Museum human evolution experts Chris Stringer and Silvia Bello discuss the sophisticated and complex behaviour uncovered by their research, including possible evidence of ritual practices.
The early modern humans living at Gough's Cave were Magdalenians, a cultural group of hunter-gatherers who originated in southwest Europe. They probably entered Britain from Belgium and the Netherlands as the climate warmed up around 15,000 years ago.
They were skilled toolmakers. As well as thousands of flint tools, excavations at Gough’s Cave exposed objects carved from ivory and reindeer antler, and needles and awls (used to pierce holes) created from the bones of small animals.
Horses were clearly a major food source, with bones frequently bearing cut marks and breakage patterns consistent with the extraction of nutritious brains and bone marrow, supplemented with other animals such as deer, grouse and hares.
The most thought-provoking finds, however, are the human remains. They belong to several individuals. Experimental work has confirmed that at least some of their bones were chewed by human teeth. Others show cut marks where soft tissue was meticulously removed. Three skulls were carefully shaped to create cups or bowls.
The painstaking preparation of such human skull-cups, as well as the apparent abundance of animal meat, suggest that there was more involved than cannibalism to satisfy hunger. Instead, it seems likely that the people of Gough's cave ate their contemporaries and preserved their skulls as part of a ritual. Whether as a macabre trophy or a way to revere dead kin, we simply don't know.