One of the human skull-cups made by ice age Britons 14,700 years ago unearthed from Gough's Cave. The process required great skill and knowledge of anatomy.
Derek Adams/Natural History Museum
British paleontologists say the have unearthed the oldest known examples of "skull cups." The find was made in Gough's Cave in southwest England and reported in a paper published yesterday in the journal PLoS One.
The AP reports that carbon dating reveals the skulls to be 14,700 years old. The AP adds:
The bowls look almost like works of art, ritual items laced with meaning. Look more closely, however, and it becomes clear they are made from human skulls...
British scientists writing in the Public Library of Science journal maintain the cups were fashioned in such a meticulous way that they only credible explanation for their manufacture is that they were used as bowls to hold liquid. If the hunters and gatherers simply wanted to eat the deceased person's brains, there would have been far easier ways to get at them, scientists said.
Wired talks to the study's lead author Sylvia Bello and also adds a bit of context:
Bello suspects that ice age Britons hoisted hollowed-out craniums in rituals of some kind. Other human bones found near the skull cups show signs of flesh and marrow removal, a result either of cannibalism or mortuary practice. The striking similarities between the cave finds and historical examples of drinking cups made out of skulls further support a ritual role for the ice age receptacles, Bello says.
Two French sites previously yielded skull containers presumed to date to between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago, but those finds have not been directly dated.