Ancient England: Engraved Bones and Skull Cups Reveal Cannibal Rituals 15,000 Years Ago

One of the skulls found in Gough's Cave. José-Manuel Benito Alvarez

Archaeologists have long known about our cannibalistic past, but why humans who lived thousands of years ago ate each other has been unclear. Now, a human bone engraved 15,000 years ago has fleshed out a long-incomplete picture about this ancient practice. providing clear evidence that some Paleolithic humans engaged in cannibalism for ritual purposes.

After filleting and consuming dead bodies, these groups stopped to inscribe a design on the bones before sucking out the marrow, and then using the skulls as cups. In other words, a new study confirms, the practice of consuming humans was almost certainly not just for their nutritional needs.

Evidence for this macabre ritual at Gough's Cave in Somerset, in southwestern England, emerged in 2015 after anthropologists and archaeologists found human bones scarred with cuts and tooth marks where they had stripped of flesh and chewed. The researchers also found skulls that had been modified for drinking or eating, indicating the cannibalism was likely ritualistic.

Now, the same team, led by Silvia Bello, an anthropologist and paleobiologist at The Natural History Museum, in the U.K., has made another discovery related to ritualistic cannibalism. Among a 30-year-old collection of ancient bones from the same area, they found one, a right arm bone, that the cave dwellers engraved with a zigzag pattern.

Current imaging techniques give archaeologists the ability to scrutinize such artifacts in a way they could not do 30 years ago. In their new study, published in PLOS One, the team took a closer look at the engraved bone.

Their detailed picture of the engravings clearly shows how the bone was processed. The engraving was made after the meat had been removed, but before it was broken open to extract the marrow. This sequence of events means the group of people had intentionally stopped eating to make the engraving before continuing with their feast.

Bello tells Newsweek : "They took some time, they paused. The engraving seems to be part of this ritual they were doing."

What is interesting, she says, is that the engraved bone was not kept as an object, as is seen at other Paleolithic sites. Instead, this group continued their consumption then discarded it. Why they did this, and the purpose of the cannibalism ritual more generally, is unknown.

The person who was consumed may have been revered in some way, Bello says. Alternatively carving of meat and bone could have been a way to store memories through tradition, as is seen at other archaeological sites where rituals are involved. "It could be a way of transferring knowledge," Bello adds. "It could have been trying to to transfer the knowledge of the deceased."

gough cave
The zigzag engraving was done before the bone was broken for marrow extraction. Bello et al/PLOS ONE

The study has limitations. With just one zigzag engraving among more than 100 bone fragments discovered at the cave, researchers can't prove their theory. The cut marks may have been made by one person in an idle moment.

But Bello says that based on other evidence, such as the skull cups previously found, this scenario is highly unlikely. "There could be more and we haven't found them," she says. "All these bones were found at the entrance to the cave. Since 15,000 years ago until now, it could be that there were more bones at the edge of the cave but they were destroyed."

In total, bones from six individuals have been identified, but only three skull cups were recovered. The other three skulls and other engraved bones may have been removed from the site.

Bello and her team hope DNA analysis will determine if the six individuals were related, and if the engraved forearm belonged to any of them. "We want to know more about what this group was," says Bello. "Were they eating someone external or someone from within the group? Is it the same individual we see getting this special treatment?"

Gough's Cave
Gough's Cave in Somerset, where the bones were found. Kim Benson/Flickr

They also want to compare the engravings to bones found at other Paleolithic sites in Europe where evidence of cannibalistic rituals has been found. Finding other similar artifacts will be key, says James Cole, an archaeologist from the University of Brighton, U.K., who studies early human cannibalism and recently published research showing we are not all that nutritious.

Commenting on the study, he says: "We need to go back to other sites and see what's going on. When we look at cases of cannibalism, we probably need to look at the whole assemblage to see if it is just about butchery and consumption, or if there's an additional component there.

"This new study shows the act of consumption itself may have been ritual in nature. That is something that has not been clearly demonstrated before for the Paleolithic."

Advanced imaging should help researchers better understand this practice. "When we look at other sites in France from same period, this zigzag pattern is extremely common," Bello says. "What we would like to do next is to look at other collections to look at ritualistic cannibalism elsewhere."