Earliest human skull-cups used by Ice Age Britons

17 February 2011

Earliest human skull-cups (© Natural History Museum)

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.

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 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.

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.’ 

Earliest human skull-cups (© Natural History Museum)

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. 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.

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.

The research is being reported on extensively in the media, including the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent newspapers.

Citation: Bello SM, Parfitt SA, Stringer CB (2011) Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17026. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017026