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.