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In Prehistoric Britain Cannibalism Was Practical and Ritualistic

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Human fossil from Gough's Cave showing cut marks

Human fossil from Gough's Cave is among the skull bones that were carefully defleshed with stone tools. Image: from Bello SM, Parfitt SA, Stringer CB (2011) Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17026. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017026

BORDEAUX—Mealtime in Gough’s cave in Somerset, England, 14,700 years ago, was not for the faint of heart. Humans were on the menu, for consumption by their own kind. Anthropologists have long studied evidence for cannibalism in the human fossil record, but establishing that it occurred and ascertaining why people ate each other have proved difficult tasks. A new analysis provides fresh insights into the human defleshing that occurred at this site and what motivated it—and hints that cannibalism may have been more common in prehistory than previously thought.

Studies of fossil human cannibalism have traditionally focused on signs of bone damage from stone tools–cut marks from slicing muscle off the bone and percussion marks from extracting the nutritious marrow inside—so as to differentiate human activity from that of large cats and other carnivores. Figuring out whether people stripped human flesh from bone for ritual reasons or for food is tricky, however. To that end, scientists have recently begun looking for signs of human tooth marks on bone, which leave no doubt about intent. Using criteria developed by Palmira Saladié of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in Tarragona, Spain, and her colleagues for identifying human tooth marks on bone, researchers re-examined the human remains from Gough’s cave. The results were striking. Taphonomist Silvia M. Bello of the Natural History Museum in London presented the team’s findings September 22 at the annual meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution here in Bordeaux.

Bello reported that the human bones from the cave representing a minimum of four individuals, including a child around three years old, show abundant evidence of gnawing by humans, in addition to extensive cut marks from stone tools. Indeed, most of the bones from below the neck bear the telltale tooth marks. The cannibals appear to have filleted the major muscles with stone knives and then chewed off the remaining morsels. Even the ends of toe bones and ribs bones were nibbled, perhaps so that their modest stores of marrow could be sucked out.

Intriguingly, in contrast to the postcranial bones, none of the skull bones show tooth marks. They were thoroughly defleshed, however. Every bit of soft tissue—including eyes, ears, cheeks, lips and tongue—seems to have been meticulously removed with stone tools. Yet the cannibals took care to preserve the vault of the cranium, separating it from the face and shaping the edges to produce what Bello and her colleagues have previously argued to be drinking cups and bowls of the sort well known from ethnographic accounts.

All told, the evidence from Gough’s Cave suggests to Bello that cannibalism there was both practical and ritualistic. She explained that cannibalism for survival—think Donner party—seems unlikely because the site contains a huge number of animal remains, suggesting that people were not starving. In addition, if they were eating their own kind out of sheer desperation, Bellow says, they probably would not have taken so much care in removing the brain and instead would have just smashed the skull to access the fatty organ inside. Instead, she argues that processing of the human body was a tradition—people at Gough’s ate the bodies of their fellow humans for nutrition rather than letting good meat go to waste, and then produced the skull cups for ritual. In fact, Bello suspects that, given the practical benefits, cannibalism was relatively common in the past.

In the question and answer period following Bello’s presentation, paleoanthropologist Jean Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig asked what the evidence was for the fashioning of skull cups being a ritual endeavor as opposed to a utilitarian one. Bello responded by noting among other things that historical accounts indicate that Australian aborigines who made skull cups used the containers every day, but knew exactly who every cup came from. She also commented to this reporter that the child’s skull would not have made for a good drinking vessel because its sutures were not yet fully fused, yet it was processed in exactly the same way as the adult skulls—another indication that the skull cups had ritualistic significance. Replying to a question from the audience about whether children might have been partaking of the human feast, Bello said that tooth marks from children cannot be distinguished from adult tooth marks, because only the tip of the tooth leaves the mark.

Bello also observed  that now that researchers have ways to identify human tooth marks, they may find more evidence of cannibalism in the fossil record of our ancestors. Scientists can now re-examine sites with equivocal evidence for cannibalism and check the bones for human bites.



Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. priddseren 1:53 pm 09/24/2012

    Considering the time period mentioned in the article, I think attempting to assign religious or ritualistic aspects is at best totally speculative and really imposing what scientists today want to believe an ancient human was like.

    14,000 years ago humans were little better than animals and it is likely humans were cannibals and took advantage of available meat. The answer to why a skull or other bones might be carefully processed can be answered by the presence of the tool maker mind. Most humans are practical and an available bowl shaped skull would make for a nice already made bowl at a time when such useful devices were not so easy to come by.

    While we today find the idea of eating human flesh repulsive to impose such a belief on prehistoric man is simply not possible. Human’s living in groups likely were just being practical about food. There did not need to be desperation to eat a human. Considering any moderate to significant injury was a certain death sentence back then, other humans watching a member of the group die, likely just saw 100 lbs of perfectly good meat available, easy to get too and no reason to waste it.

    It is always a mistake to impose modern thought and beliefs on ancient people. Most of what we believe today is the result of the last 2000 years of history, experiences a human 14,000 years ago simply could not have experienced.

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  2. 2. BillR 2:31 pm 09/24/2012

    You are also speculating…. ;) But it is impossible to say in that we do not know the details of the context the bones were found in. If the details can be fleshed out (no pun intended), then we can know if they were eating the flesh of their enemies in the belief that they would acquire their strength, or if they were suffering through a famine, or whatever. Speculation can give direction for the pursuit of investigation.

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  3. 3. Cramer 2:36 pm 09/24/2012

    priddseren wrote, “14,000 years ago humans were little better than animals…”

    Modern human behavior appeared 50k years ago. Humans 14,000 years ago were no different than 21st century humans. Do you need examples of the stupidity and savage behavior in modern humans?

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  4. 4. jgrosay 2:52 pm 09/24/2012

    Some say that the accurate knowledge of human anatomy the ancient Greeks had, as evidenced in some texts in their literature, reflected a not too far early in the times for them cannibalism practices.

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  5. 5. aligzanduh 5:35 pm 09/24/2012

    Dice were invented in 35,000 BC – evidence of rafts date back to before 10,000 BC. Humans actually have changed very little in these 16,000 years mentally.

    Religious practices date back to at least 25,000 BC.

    There was a lot more going on in the world than people realize. In 14,000 BC Amerindians were making their way from Alaska to the New World. Within a very short time they reached Chile.

    No animal that could not fly did that!

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 8:10 pm 09/24/2012

    Interesting article – it would be more informative if a more prominent link to the source report could have been provided. I did find the doi citation in the image caption text. FYI, the document can be retrieved by affixing ‘’ to the doi number, in this case yielding a url of

    My first thought was to wonder whether all deaths resulted in cannibalism, or whether only selected people were consumed. I thought this might be indicated if human burials were also found at the same strata.

    I found the following statement that seems to indicate that all deaths may have produced ritualistic cannibalism:
    “The Magdalenian is associated with widespread evidence for the artificial modifications of human remains. This contrasts with earlier Upper Palaeolithic periods such as the Gravettian, where primary inhumation (sometimes with elaborate grave goods) was the common burial practice [67].”

    If this is indeed the case, putting our inherent cultural bias aside, perhaps the cannibalistic ritual was a sympathetic expression intendeed to honor the deceased rather than an inhumane, animalistic act.

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  7. 7. savvov 5:38 pm 09/25/2012

    The dynamic model of the globe has proved, that from the moment of occurrence of the Earth in an orbit of the Sun, during III stage in territories where now there are such countries as Canada, UK, the Scandinavian countries – in general to live it was impossible (a zone of an ice dome), these territories appeared suitable for residing only a few thousand years ago, with the beginning of IV stage. If Kate Wong knew, that except for Static model of the globe also has appeared the Dynamic model, the maintenance of clause would be other

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  8. 8. jstahle 7:24 pm 09/26/2012

    This is a SciAm Classic, ain’t it?

    I have known for more than 45 years of the cut marks from slicing muscle off the [human] bone and percussion marks from extracting the nutritious marrow inside.

    Our ancestors were cannibals, been there, done that :-D

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  9. 9. jstahle 7:30 pm 09/26/2012

    5. aligzanduh writes: “No animal that could not fly did that!”

    Well, some still do, more or less.

    The Manx Shearwater (bird) migrates more than 10 000 km (6 250 miles) from from the Isle of Man (UK) to southern Brazil and Argentina.

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  10. 10. American Muse 10:23 pm 09/26/2012

    Why go back 14,700 years? They still do it in Britain!

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  11. 11. Happy Hal 10:48 pm 09/26/2012

    Now would those be little people? Like Hobbits, Elfs or Dwarves?

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  12. 12. Kernos 11:10 am 09/27/2012

    I looked at this because of ‘Practical” in the title. So what was practical about it?

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  13. 13. bucketofsquid 5:54 pm 09/28/2012

    The simple fact is that every living human has an ancestry that traces back to cannibals. Nothing to be ashamed of unless you are a current cannibal. The cannibals of New Guinea state quite emphatically that human tastes like pork and that the darker the skin the better the flavor.

    I haven’t had pork for years after learning that. Ick!

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  14. 14. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 6:12 pm 09/28/2012

    Pork? I heard that people tasted like chicken!

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  15. 15. American Muse 12:14 am 09/30/2012

    No, they taste like humans.

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  16. 16. Tayo Bethel 4:10 pm 09/30/2012

    And how do humans taste?

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