Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Earliest Human Skull-Cups Used By Ice Age Britons

Simon Parfitt has contributed to research by the Natural History Museum, published yesterday in journal PLoS ONE revealing the earliest known examples of human skull-cups in the world, and the first evidence for their manufacture in the UK.

The 3 cups are made out of 14,700-year-old human skulls and were found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. They would have been used by ice age Britons and this is the first evidence of human skull-cup manufacture in the UK.

The human skulls belonged to 2 adults and 1 child and a precise replica of one of the adult skull-cups will go on display in the Museum from 1 March 2011 for 3 months.

Making containers out of human skulls may sound gruesome but the practice is well known worldwide. It has been documented from the Vikings and Scythians to recent peoples, and other potential skull-cups have previously been unearthed.

However, archaeological evidence of the details of this practice is extremely rare and this new research reveals for the first time the intricate process of skull-cup manufacture.

Earliest human skull-cups (© Natural History Museum)
Credit: University College of London

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 earliest known examples of human skull-cups have been uncovered in the UK, Natural History Museum scientists report in the journal PLoS One.

Credit: University College of London/British Museum of Natural History

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 this research reveals for the first time the intricate process involved in this unusual practice.

Earliest human skull-cups (© Natural History Museum)
Credit: University of College

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.’

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’

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.

Simon Parfitt, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute, is on secondment at the Natural History Museum, working on the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, which is directed by Professor Stringer and involves collaborative research by archaeologists, palaeontologists and earth scientists from a number of different institutes.

Highly Skilled Work

Dr Silvia Bello, Museum fossil human expert(palaeoanthropologist) and lead author of the paper, explains, ‘We suspected that these early humans were highly skilled at manipulating human bodies once they died, and our research reveals just what great anatomiststhey 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.’

Percussion marks (in the circle) on frontal bone show the damage caused by a carefully placed blow to remove the facial bones from the skull. The white arrow shows cut marks.
Percussion marks (circle) on frontal bone show damage caused by careful blow to remove facial bone
Credit: University College of London

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. A new book The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain by the project team has just been published by Elsevier.

New analysis

Two of the skull-cups were excavated from Gough’s Cave in the 1920s and one in 1987. The team carried out new examinations using state-of-the-art microscopy technology at the Museum, and conducted research on historic and recent accounts of skull-cup practices. They found that the skull-cups were modified in extremely similar ways to historic and ethnographic examples where they were used as containers or drinking-cups in ritualistic practices.

Using the latest radiocarbon dating techniques, the skull-cups were found to be about 14,700 years old, which means they are the oldest directly dated examples in the world. This new analysis could be applied to other specimens and means that there maybe older human skull-cup examples waiting to be recognised.

Gough’s Cave site

Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwest England is where the earliest human skull-cups were found
Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwest England is where the skull-cups were found
Credit: University College of London

Gough’s Cave in southwest England is an important archaeological site, used since the 19th century. Archaeological excavations took place there between 1987 and 1992 by Museum and Nottingham University scientists, including the unearthing of much of the material used in this research and Britain's earliest cannibal discoveries.

Gough’s Cave was also home to a modern human known as Cheddar Man whose near-complete skeleton was uncovered there in 1903. He is dated to around 10,000 years ago.

A lot of research in Gough’s Cave has been part of the AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) project, including these human skull-cup findings. In 2009, AHOB members revealed that Gough’s Cave was one of the first places humans lived when they returned to Britain after the peak of the last ice age. The AHOB team have just released a new book, The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain.

For more information on the human skull-cups, the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB) and the forthcoming display please visit the Natural History Museum website.

Source: University College of London,  British Natural History Museum 

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