More proof ice age Britons had cannibalistic habits

16 April 2015

Human chewing damage

(A) Human chewing damage on a second right rib showing saw-toothed breaks on the sternal end (white arrows) and (B) furrowing of the head and neck. (C) Slicing cut-marks on the neck and tubercle of the rib, probably related to removal of the rib from the vertebral column (FVM image).  

Research on human remains from Gough’s Cave in Somerset confirms ice age Britons had cannibalistic habits, according to scientists from the Natural History Museum, University College London, and a number of Spanish universities.

Ancient human burial sites are extremely rare. However, many ancient human remains, aged at about 15,000 years old, have been unearthed over the years from Gough’s Cave. These bones have been studied and research has been published, including a paper in 2011 in which Museum scientists revealed that the earliest known examples of human skull-cups were made in the UK.

Today, new research shows more cannibalistic evidence, including human tooth marks on many of the human bones. The research points to the existence of a sophisticated culture of butchering and carving of human remains, the team says.

‘We’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier research,’ said Dr Silvia Bello, from the Natural History Museum’s Department of Earth Sciences, and lead researcher. ‘We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow.’

Human skull-cup uncovered in Gough's Cave, Somerset

Human skull-cup uncovered in Gough's Cave, Somerset

New radiocarbon techniques revealed the remains were deposited over a very short period of time, possibly during a series of seasonal occupations, about 14,700 years ago. This suggests the people returned to the area for short-term reasons such as for hunting, and possibly also for burying their dead.

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 after the last ice age.

Cannibal evidence has been found in other ancient sites in central and western Europe. However, this research suggests that cannibalism was part of a mortuary practice that combined intensive processing and consumption of the bodies with the ritual use of skull-cups.

‘Further analysis along the lines used to study Gough's Cave will help to establish whether the type of ritualistic cannibalism practiced there is a regional (‘Creswellian’) phenomenon, or a more widespread practice found throughout the Magdalenian world,’ adds Simon Parfitt, of University College London and part of the research team.

by Yvonne Da Silva

Cannibalism at Gough's Cave

Gough's Cave in Somerset provides fascinating insights into the culture of people living in Britain 14,700 years ago.

Publication

Bello SM, Saladie P, Caceres I, Rodriguez-Hidalgo A and Parfitt S A (2015) Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough's Cave (Somerset,UK): The human remains from head to toe. Journal of Human Evolution (82) 170-189.