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The Prehistoric Feast of the Cannibals of Gough’s Cave

The Prehistoric Feast of the Cannibals of Gough’s Cave


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A new study that examined cut marks on bones in order to distinguish between cannibalism and ritualistic defleshing practices have determined that a very morbid feast took place 15,000 years ago in Gough's Cave near Bristol in England. The researchers wanted to find out whether the butchered remains of adults and children were the result of a funerary ritual, human violence, or a desperate attempt to survive hard times.

Gough’s Cave, which is 115 meters (377ft) deep and 3.4 km (2.1 miles) long, was first excavated in the late 1880s and has been extensively researched since then. Within the cave, scientists have found numerous human and animal remains with clearly visible signs of butchery. The human remains belonged to around 5 or 7 people, including a three-year-old child and two adolescents. All of them had cut-marks and breakage consistent with defleshing and eating. Moreover, some of the skulls had been transformed into ornaments known as ''skull cups'', which were used as drinking vessels.

A chamber and mirror pool inside Gough's Cave, Cheddar, called Alladdin's Cave. (Rwendland/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The BBC reports on research conducted on the bones retrieved from Gough’s Cave. According to scientists, the remains do not display any evidence of violence prior to death, so the people who were consumed were not killed and eaten as a result of conflict. It was concluded that this was an example either of cannibalism or the removal of flesh from bones after death, which was occasionally done for ritualistic purposes. A recent study, published in August in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology , aimed to determine which of these two scenarios occurred.

The scientific team, led by Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum in London, UK, explained that cannibalism and ritualistic defleshing can be distinguished based on frequency, distribution and characteristics of cut marks:

“Cannibalized human remains, however, present a uniform cut mark distribution, which can be associated with disarticulation of persistent and labile articulations, and the scalping and filleting of muscles. For secondary burials where modification occurred after a period of decay, disarticulation marks are less common and the disarticulation of labile joints is rare,” the team reports in their paper.

A skull cap found in Gough’s Cave with evidence of cannibalism ( public domain )

The team concluded that the cut marks on the remains found in Gough’s Cave were indeed the result of cannibalism.

"It is quite symptomatic. You can see the same type of pattern on the other animals. You can really say they were butchering the animals in the same way, [for] the meaty bits,” said Bello [via BBC]. “Some of the modification, particularly for the fingers, [shows] they were probably chewing to suck the grease off. The presence of human tooth marks on human bones is probably the best evidence of cannibalism."

In the published report, the researchers suggest that cannibalism in prehistoric times was often practiced as a way of insulting enemies. But Bello believes that the people whose bones were discovered died naturally. The time of their death took place during the Ice Age, when food resources were very limited, which may explain the necessity to consume human remains. At the same time, the researchers suggest that people from the Gough's Cave used the skull cups as part of ritual practices.

The first known examples of cannibalistic practices among humans date back around 100,000 years, identified in both France and China. As Liz Leafloor from Ancient Origins reported in July 24, 2015:

''The bones of a child from 100,000 years ago display gnawed tooth marks, and researchers are trying to determine if this is evidence of cannibalism in the prehistoric Xuchang Man of China.

The two pieces of thigh bone were found 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from Lingjing historical site in Xuchang, Henan province, China. They’re believed to belong to “Xuchang Man”, an extinct species of early human with possible links to modern day Chinese, reports news site DNA.

The bones show “signs of biting and gnawing” lead archaeologist Li Zhanyang said. However, it has not been determined if the marks on the remains were from animal predators or other humans. Other instances of cannibalism have been discovered in other populations, and “the possibility of fellow hominids eating nutritious content from the bones could not be ruled out,” Li added.

These finds come nearly a decade after the important discovery of partial human fossilized skulls found in Henan, which were used in identifying the “Xuchang” species of hominin. The skulls, unearthed in fragments, are thought to date back between 80,000 and 100,000 years ago. These skulls are important to archaeology and anthropology as Xuchang Man fossil finds shed light on a period in history that remains mostly mysterious to scientists, and helps them connect the dots on the genetic lineage of modern-day Chinese.

The Xuchang skulls were hailed as the greatest find since the discovery of the Peking Man fossils in Beijing. Remains from the two species are filling in gaps of understanding regarding prehistoric humans in China.''


Bones from a Cheddar Gorge cave show that cannibalism helped Britain's earliest settlers survive the ice age

Scientists have identified the first humans to recolonise Britain after the last ice age. The country was taken over in a couple of years by individuals who practised cannibalism, they say - a discovery that revolutionises our understanding of the peopling of Britain and the manner in which men and women reached these shores.

Research has shown that tribes of hunter-gatherers moved into Britain from Spain and France with extraordinary rapidity when global warming brought an end to the ice age 14,700 years ago and settled in a cavern – known as Gough's Cave – in the Cheddar Gorge in what is now Somerset.

From the bones they left behind, scientists have also discovered these people were using sophisticated butchering techniques to strip flesh from the bones of men, women and children.

"These people were processing the flesh of humans with exactly the same expertise that they used to process the flesh of animals," said Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. "They stripped every bit of food they could get from those bones."

The discovery of the speed of Britain's recolonisation after the last ice age, and the disquieting fate of some of those first settlers, is the result of two major technological breakthroughs. The first involves the development of a technique known as ultra-filtration carbon dating. Perfected by scientists based at Oxford University's radiocarbon accelerator unit, it allows researchers to pinpoint the ages of ancient bones and other organic material with unprecedented accuracy.

The second breakthrough involves the use of a machine known as the Alicona 3D microscope. Using this device, Dr Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum has studied the cut marks left on bones of humans and animals in Gough's Cave. Scientists already knew cannibalism had been practised in the cavern, but were unclear if it was a ritual process or involved the deliberate killing of humans. However, Bello has found humans had been butchered with the same stone tools that had been used to cut up animals. In other words, animal and human flesh was treated the same way by these early Britons.

In addition to these findings, the discovery – by Danish scientists a few years ago – that the last ice age ended with astonishing rapidity has also played a key role in reappraising the recolonisation of Britain. Far from being a gradual process, in which men and women slowly reoccupied territory that had been taken from them by spreading glaciers, the resettling of Britain now appears to have been rapid, dramatic and bloody.

For around 60,000 years the planet had shivered as ice sheets fluctuated over large parts of the northern and southern hemisphere – including Britain, then a peninsula of northern Europe, which supported a small population of humans for much of this time. However, around 24,000 years ago, the weather worsened drastically. Britain's last inhabitants either died out or headed southwards for some continental warmth in refuges in northern Spain and central France.

Britain's icy desolation ended abruptly 14,700 years ago when there was a dramatic leap in temperatures across the globe according to ice-cores found in Greenland and lake sediments in Germany. In less than three years, temperatures had soared by around 6 to 7 degrees Celsius and ice sheets began a rapid retreat throughout the world.

Such a jump in temperature brought about an astonishing change in the world's weather patterns – though the underlying cause remains unclear, scientists admit. Suggestions include the proposal that variations in the orbit of the Earth around the Sun allowed more solar radiation to bathe the planet and so warm it up. It has also been proposed that there may have been a sudden eruption of carbon dioxide from the oceans. This helped trap heat from the sun in the atmosphere and so heat up the world.

"Whatever the reason, it was good news in those days, because the world was so cold and so it heated up nicely. However, if a rise like that happened today it would be devastating," said Dr Tom Higham, deputy director of the Oxford radiocarbon unit. "The world would be scorched. That is one of the most important aspects of the story of the resettling of Britain."

Higham's work, in collaboration with his late colleague Roger Jacobi, has involved studying the ages of the bones found at Gough's Cave in the Somerset Mendips, the earliest post-ice age site at which modern human remains have been found. The bones of half a dozen people – including children, adolescents and adults – were found in the cave in the 1980s, a discovery that made national headlines when it was revealed that these remains bore patterns of cut marks that suggested they had been the victims of cannibalism.

Other sites of this antiquity, in Germany and France, have also supplied evidence that human bones had been butchered. But the Gough's Cave finds were puzzling because radiocarbon dates indicated that humans had used the cave for more than 2,000 years, including several centuries in which the country would have been covered in ice sheets.

"The problem with radiocarbon dates of this antiquity is that it only takes a tiny trace of contamination from modern organic material to distort results," said Higham. "That is why we kept getting such a range of ages from the Gough's Cave bones."

To get round this problem, Jacobi and Higham worked on a technique – known as ultra-filtration – which involves using a series of complex chemical treatments to destroy any modern contamination in samples taken from the cave. First results of dates supplied using this technique were published by the scientists in a paper in Quaternary Science Reviews last year and were based on their re-analysis of the bones of Gough's Cave. These revealed a very different picture for the ages for the bones than had previously been calculated.

Instead of dates being spread over a couple of thousand years, the new ones clustered tightly round an age of 14,700 years before present – the exact moment that the world had begun its dramatic defrosting. Within a year or two, humans had left their southern refuges and were heading north into Britain, it was revealed. In other words, the end of the ice age was almost instantaneous – and so was the manner in which we exploited it.

In those days, humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers: strong, relatively well-nourished individuals who followed the herds of wild horses that then roamed Europe. These animals provided men, women and children with their main source of protein. "The weather suddenly got warm, the horses headed north and men and women followed them," said Higham. "It would have been a very rapid business."

As for the route of this migration, it probably took these ancient hunter-gatherers across Doggerland – a now submerged stretch of land in the North Sea that is known as Dogger Bank today – and into eastern England. Within a couple of years, they had reached Gough's Cave, though the cavern would not have formed a permanent residence but would most likely have served as a refuge to which they could return on a regular basis.

Previously it had been thought that the cave had been occupied, on or off, for around 2,000 years. However, the new set of dates generated by Higham shows that these not only cluster round the date of 14,700 years before the present, but that they cover only a very narrow range of about a hundred years or less. In other words, the cave was occupied for only a few generations at that time.

However, it is the behaviour of those few generations that has perplexed scientists for the past 20 years and which led to the new investigation by Bello. "The bone fragments we have found suggest we are looking at the remains of five individuals," she said. "These remains include one young child, aged between three and four, two adolescents, a young adult and an older adult. So we have every kind of age group represented in the Gough's Cave remains."

Bello has found that each of these sets of remains is covered with marks that show they had been the subject of comprehensive butchery, with all muscle and tissue being stripped from them. But why de-flesh those bones in the first place? What triggered such an extreme act? To provide answers, scientists have put forward a number of different theories. These include suggestions that it was a form of ritual which involved the eating of small pieces of a relative's flesh, not as a source of nutrition, but as an act of homage.

Others have argued that it involved a form of crisis cannibalism in which people ate the flesh of others because all other sources of food had disappeared. "An example of that sort of cannibalism was provided by the Andes air crash in 1972 when survivors ate the flesh of those who had been killed in the accident," said Stringer.

And finally there is straightforward cannibalism in which humans hunt, kill and eat other humans because they have a preference for human flesh. This is sometimes known as homicidal cannibalism.

The new evidence that is emerging from Bello's work does not resolve the issue, though some significant pointers have been uncovered. "These people were breaking up bones to get at the marrow inside," she said. "They were stripping off all of the muscle mass. Brains seemed to have been removed. Tongues seemed to have been removed. And it is also possible that eyes were being removed. It was very systematic work." In addition, human remains appear to have been disposed of in the same way as animal bones, by being dumped in a single pit.

Such evidence suggests straightforward cannibalism was carried out in Gough's Cave. However, there are other factors to note, said Bello. "These were very difficult times and it is still quite possible people ate each other because there simply wasn't anything else to eat." The landscape – although rapidly recovering – would still have been pretty barren, particularly in winter.

In addition, Bello also pointed out that the remains of only a few individuals had been found at Gough's Cave. In other words, there is no evidence that large-scale human butchery had been practised there. "That means we cannot completely rule out the possibility that this was some form of ritual cannibalism, although I think it is unlikely," said Bello.

At present, most evidence indicates that humans were probably using the skills that they had acquired in butchering animal flesh, in particular the meat of horses as well as reindeer, another stone age favourite, in order to cut up humans who had died of natural causes.

"We don't see any traumatic wounds in these remains which would suggest violence was being inflicted on living people. This was some kind of cultural process that they brought with them from Europe," she said.

Whatever the nature of the cannibalism that was carried out by these early settlers, it did them little good in the end. Two thousand years after the ice age ended, Europe was plunged into a new, catastrophic freeze. A massive lake of glacial meltwater built up over northern America. Then it burst its banks and billions of gallons of icy water poured into the north Atlantic, deflecting the Gulf Stream. Temperatures in Britain plunged back to their ice age levels and the country was once again completely depopulated.

"This new period of intense cold lasted for more than a thousand years," said Stringer. "Only by 11,500 years did conditions start to return to their present level – and Britain was colonised by humans for the last time."

This article was amended on 23 June 2010 to correct the spelling of Dr Silvia Bello's name.


The Horse Hunters of Gough&rsquos Cave

24,000 years ago, a vast ice sheet covered much of North Western Europe. Some areas, such as northern France and southern Britain escaped the ice. However, they were polar deserts, and their climates were too extreme to support life. As a result, for over 9000 years, a substantial part of Europe remained barren and uninhabited. Human groups were confined to ice-free zones in the south of France and the Iberian Peninsula. Then suddenly, 14, 700 years ago, things changed.

Danish scientists examining ice cores in Green land and lake sediments from Germany have found that in less than three years, temperatures rose by 6-7 degrees. The cause of this is still unclear. But what is known is, the ice sheet began to retreat, freeing up more inhabitable land in the previously polar regions of northern Europe. Plants began to grow, and as a result, herds of animals started to move north. Amongst them were herds of horses that were a significant source of food for Paleolithic hunter-gathers. So, as a consequence, people began to move too. Following the horse herds, they expanded into northern France and crossed Doggerland, the land bridge that once linked Britain to the rest of Europe.

A few years later, a group of these Horse Hunters settled in the area of Cheddar Gorge and made their home in Gough&rsquos Cave. They only remained for a generation or two. Then all evidence of their presence stopped. Experts believed this was because birch forests were beginning to take root in the area due to the rising temperatures. However, woodland was not an attractive habitat for horses. So when the herds moved on again, the Horse Hunters of Gough&rsquos cave followed them.

A chamber and mirror pool inside Gough&rsquos Cave, Cheddar, called Aladdin&rsquos Cave. Picture Credit: Rwendland. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

The descendants of these Horse Hunters were driven out of Britain during the Younger Dryas period that occurred between 12900- 11700 when icy conditions temporarily returned to northwestern climes. However, around 2000 years later, people were back in Britain again for good- and once again they were settling in Gough&rsquos Cave. Cheddar man is a relic of this final resettlement of Britain. However, unbeknown to these Mesolithic Britains, a quiet corner of Gough&rsquos Cave was hiding the remains of their predecessors.

Between 1986 and 1992 a team from Britain&rsquos Natural History Museum uncovered a collection of human bones that dated from 14,700 years ago. Analysis showed that disarticulated remains belonged to five people: a 2-3-year-old child, two adolescents, a young adult, and an older individual. The bones were mixed in with animal bones, flint remains, and small mobile pieces of art carved from antler and ivory. However, closer examination showed these human bones were hiding a grizzly secret.


Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough's Cave (Somerset, UK): The human remains from head to toe

A recurring theme of late Upper Palaeolithic Magdalenian human bone assemblages is the remarkable rarity of primary burials and the common occurrence of highly-fragmentary human remains mixed with occupation waste at many sites. One of the most extensive Magdalenian human bone assemblages comes from Gough's Cave, a sizeable limestone cave set in Cheddar Gorge (Somerset), UK. After its discovery in the 1880s, the site was developed as a show cave and largely emptied of sediment, at times with minimal archaeological supervision. Some of the last surviving remnants of sediment within the cave were excavated between 1986 and 1992. The excavations uncovered intensively-processed human bones intermingled with abundant butchered large mammal remains and a diverse range of flint, bone, antler, and ivory artefacts. New ultrafiltrated radiocarbon determinations demonstrate that the Upper Palaeolithic human remains were deposited over a very short period of time, possibly during a series of seasonal occupations, about 14,700 years BP (before present). The human remains have been the subject of several taphonomic studies, culminating in a detailed reanalysis of the cranial remains that showed they had been carefully modified to make skull-cups. Our present analysis of the postcrania has identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier studies. We identify extensive evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow. The presence of human tooth marks on many of the postcranial bones provides incontrovertible evidence for cannibalism. In a wider context, the treatment of the human corpses and the manufacture and use of skull-cups at Gough Cave have parallels with other Magdalenian sites in central and western Europe. This suggests that cannibalism during the Magdalenian was part of a customary mortuary practice that combined intensive processing and consumption of the bodies with ritual use of skull-cups.

Keywords: Bone-marrow extraction Cut-marks Human skull-cup Human tooth marks Magdalenian.


England & Cannibalism: Prehistoric Bones In English Cave Point To Ritual Eating Of Human Flesh

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.


Bone’s Marks Suggest a Cannibal Ritual in Ancient Britain

When Silvia Bello gives lectures about cannibalism, she starts by asking her audience to imagine a cannibal. “Normally, people think of Hannibal Lecter or something that’s disturbing,” said Dr. Bello, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London.

But archaeological evidence suggests that most cannibalism in human history was not the work of serial killers. Instead, it occurred for complex and varied reasons. Thousands of years ago in Britain, for example, people seem to have eaten their own kind as part of an intricate funeral custom that combined both nutrition and ritual.

At an archaeological site called Gough’s Cave, in southwestern England, human bones that are approximately 15,000 years old bear unmistakable signs of cannibalism, like butchering marks and human tooth imprints that suggest even the ends of toe and rib bones were gnawed to get at every last bit of grease and marrow. But the bones also seem to have been used in cultural traditions. In a paper published in PLOS One on Wednesday, Dr. Bello and her colleagues report what appears to have been a purposeful engraving of a zigzag pattern on a human arm bone, an indication of ritual.

Previously, Dr. Bello and others described what seemed to be drinking vessels made from skulls among the site’s human remains. Together, the skull-cups and arm bone engraving paint the richest, most unambiguous picture yet of early ritualistic cannibalism, said James Cole, an archaeology lecturer at the University of Brighton in Britain, who was not involved in the research.

In the latest study, Dr. Bello and her colleagues compared the incisions on the arm bone in question with hundreds of butchering marks on human and animal bones from Gough’s Cave, as well as engravings on animal bones from the cave and other archaeological sites.

The cut marks on the arm bone were unlike butchering incisions, the researchers found. It seemed that whoever made the marks deliberately sawed the bone back and forth to make the marks deeper, wider and more visible. In contrast, when taking meat off a bone, one typically wants to minimize the number of cuts, since repeated scraping against bone makes one’s blade (in this case, a stone tool) blunt, Dr. Bello said.

The zigzag design on the arm bone matched patterns on engraved animal bones found in France from the same period, suggesting it was a common motif during that time.

Image

Because heaps of animal remains were also found in Gough’s Cave, the researchers suspect that people back then were not starving and eating humans for survival. There were also no obvious signs of injury on the human remains. That “would suggest that people died from natural causes and were then eaten,” Dr. Bello said.

It’s possible that people practiced cannibalism as a way to dispose of, or even honor, the dead. In this context, engraving the bone might have been a way to extend a memory of the deceased before the body was broken down and eaten, though this is just speculation, Dr. Bello said.

In fact, we may never know what people who lived that long ago were thinking, said Pat Shipman, an adjunct anthropology professor at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the study. What’s clear, though, is that such things as how we treat the dead and what we deem acceptable to eat have constantly shifted through history.

Studies like this enlarge our understanding of our own species, she said, showing us that “there’s a lot more variability in human cultures, and cultural behavior, than we might think.”


These Prehistoric Cannibals Turned Dinner into Artwork

New evidence from a cave in England shows that Stone Age residents living there 15,000 years ago ate their friends and relatives and then turned their skulls and bones into works of art. Were they adding insult to injury or honoring the dead in appreciation of a good, albeit grisly, meal?

“The sequence of modifications performed on this bone suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations. Although in previous analyses we have been able to suggest that cannibalism at Gough’s Cave was practiced as a symbolic ritual, this study provides the strongest evidence for this yet.”

Silvia Bello, Calleva Researcher at the Natural History Museum, describes in PLOS One what he and fellow researchers found in Gough’s Cave, a spectacular limestone cavern in Cheddar, Somerset, England. Measuring 115 meters (377 ft) deep and 3.4 km (2.12 mi) long, Gough’s Cave is famous for the remains of its human dwellers, including Cheddar Man, the oldest complete human skeleton in Britain, dating back to 7,150 BCE. The cave was found in the 1880s by Richard Cox Gough, who turned it into a show or tourist cave which was illuminated with an early electric lighting system in 1899.

A view inside Gough’s Cave

Shoving the tourists aside, archeologists found Gough’s Cave to be filled with the butchered remains of large mammals, artifacts carved from their bones and human bones showing the telltale cuts and gouges indicating they were the victims of cannibals. The human bones dated back 14,700 years to a time when the climate warmed and the cave was inhabited by prehistoric nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Why did these hunter-gatherers with what seemed to be plenty of other things to eat consume fellow humans and why did some of the cuts on the bones seem to be more like art than the random gouges and bites from diners? That’s what Bello sought to answer when he and other researchers from the Natural History Museum took a closer look at the remains. They determined that a common zig-zag pattern found on many bones was an indication of ritualistic carving or artwork. They also determined that some of the skulls were cleaned and carved in a manner that indicates they were later used for cups.

Bones showing the ritualistic carvings

Bello’s most unusual discovery in Gough’s Cave was that the victims of this cannibalistic cave culture were their own people, not enemies, intruders or unlucky wanderers from other tribes or caves.

“None of the remains seem to reveal any obvious signs of trauma, suggesting that the ‘consumed’ probably died of natural causes rather than a violent death. If this is the case, it is probable that the consumers and the consumed belonged to the same group.”

This practice is known as endocannibalism, which entails eating the flesh of humans after they have died a natural death as part of a ceremony and not for nourishment. While it has been seen in indigenous cultures in Peru and Brazil, this is the first evidence of the practice in Britain and Bello’s conclusion is that the entire process was an elaborate but gruesome funeral ritual.

“The sequence of the manipulations suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, implying a complex ritualistic funerary behaviour that has never before been recognized for the Palaeolithic period.”


The Secrets of the Bones

The original investigation of the Paleolithic bones in Gough&rsquos cave concluded that they showed signs of cannibalism. The bones all belonged to people who had been disarticulated in the same way as butchered animals. Their corpses had then been systematically stripped of their flesh. The bones showed signs that the flesh was carefully scrapped away to remove every trace of tissue- in some cases with human teeth as well as tools. It was a sensational and disturbing discovery- especially as one of the bodies was of a young child.

In 2017, a further team from the National History Museum re-examined the bones using more up to date technology. They concluded that the bones did indeed belong to bodies that had been systematically disarticulated and stripped of their flesh. Close analysis of cut marks corresponded with scraping and filleting- and 42% of the remains did indeed possess human teeth marks. A third of the bones had also been broken up post-mortem in a way that suggested marrow extraction. To complete the grizzly picture, the edges of some of the skulls had been carefully smoothed to make them into skull cups- after the soft tissue had been carefully removed.

Dr. Silva Bello, part of the Natural History Museum team also agreed with the initial archaeological assessment that the human remains had been cut up and butchered in the same way as the animal bones. This, taken with the other findings provided the 2017 team with &ldquoUnequivocal evidence that the bodies were eaten.&rdquo However, there were other curious marks on the bones that were not related to the butchering and de-fleshing of the bodies. Natural History Museum expert Jill Cook had first noticed these marks in 1986. Other experts, however, had dismissed them as filleting marks. But, these scores in the bones were found in areas without muscle attachments. So, the modern team decided to investigate them further.

The engraved Bones from Gough&rsquos Cave. Picture: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London 2017.

The marks resembled a zigzag pattern, which curiously matched zigzag motifs commonly used in the picturePaleolithic art of the same period. On one of the forearm bones, this pattern covered an area of just over 6 cm. Cook had argued that the marks were made deliberately after the flesh was stripped. Bello and the team decided to look at the construction of the cuts using macro and micro morphometric analysis to help determine if they were part of the de-fleshing process. They found that the structure of the cuts was utterly different from those made during butchery. Cook was right the marks were deliberate.

More intriguing still was the fact that the carved pattern was made in the same way as the decoration on the animal bone artifacts. However, the fact that the human bones were decorated at all was perplexing for there were relatively few examples of engraved human bones to be found across Paleolithic Europe. Something more than simple cannibalism had been going on in Gough&rsquos cave. But what?


The initial sections of the cave, previously known as Sand Hole, were accessible prior to the 19th century. [4] Between 1892 and 1898 a retired sea captain, Richard Cox Gough, who lived in Lion House in Cheddar, found, excavated and opened to the public further areas of the cave, up to Diamond Chamber, which is the end of the show cave today. Electric lighting was installed in the show caves in 1899. [5]

The cave is susceptible to flooding often lasting for up to 48 hours, however in the Great Flood of 1968 the flooding lasted for three days. [6]

The extensive flooded parts of the cave system were found and explored between 1985 and 1990. [5]

The cave contained skeletal remains of both humans and animals, all showing cut-marks and breakage consistent with de-fleshing and eating. Skull fragments represent from 5 to 7 humans, including a young child of about 3 years and two adolescents. The brain cases appear to have been prepared as drinking cups or containers, a tradition found in other Magdalenian sites across Europe. [7]

In 1903 the remains of a human male, since named Cheddar Man, were found a short distance inside Gough's Cave. He is Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, having been dated to approximately 7150 BC. [8] His genetic markers suggested (based on their associations in modern populations whose phenotypes are known) that he probably had green eyes, lactose intolerance, dark curly or wavy hair, and, less certainly, [9] dark to very dark skin. [10] [11]

The remains currently reside in the Natural History Museum in London, with a replica in the Cheddar Man and the Cannibals museum in the Gorge. Other human remains have also been found in the cave.

In 2010 further human bones from the cave were examined, which ultra-filtration carbon dating dated to around the end of the ice age 14,700 years ago. A second technique, using 3D microscopy, showed that the flesh had been removed from the bones using the same tools and techniques used on animal bones. According to Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, this supports theories about cannibalism amongst the people living in or visiting the cave at that time. [12] In February 2011, the same team published an analysis of human skulls of the same date found at the cave around 1987, [13] which they believe were deliberately fashioned into ritual drinking cups or bowls. [14]

In 2020 a twenty centimetre long forty thousand year old mammoth tusk with a line of four holes drilled into it was interpreted as being a device for making rope. Grooves around each hole would have held plant fibres in place. The instrument was found near the base of the Aurignacian deposits at Hohle Fels by a team led by Nicholas Conard of the institute of archaeological sciences at the University of Tübingen. Veerle Rots, of the University of Liège in Belgium was able to make four twisted strands of twine, using a bronze replica of the Hohle Fels cave device, an example of Experimental archaeology. A similar 15,000 years old device, made of reindeer antler, was found in Gough's Cave. The existence of these tools at different locations indicates rope-making had already become an important human activity by the Upper Paleolithic. Chris Stringer Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum said, “These devices were called batons and were originally thought to have been carried by chiefs as badges of rank. However, they had holes with spirals round them and we now realise they must have been used to make or manipulate ropes.” The ropes could then have been used to construct fishing nets, snares and traps, bows and arrows, clothing and containers for carrying food. Heavy objects, such as sleds, could now be hauled on ropes while spear points could be lashed to poles. [15] [16]

The first 820 m (2,690 ft) of the cave are open to the public as a show cave, and this stretch contains most of the more spectacular formations. [5] The greater part of the cave's length is made up of the river passage, which is accessible only by cave diving.


Watch the video: Bruce Parry u0026 Mark Anstice: Cannibals and Crampons 2001 (January 2023).

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