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Ancient Britons drank from human skulls

From BBC News:

Ancient Britons were not averse to using human skulls as drinking cups, skeletal remains unearthed in southwest England suggest.

The braincases from three individuals were fashioned in such a meticulous way that their use as bowls to hold liquid seems the only reasonable explanation.

The 14,700-year-old objects were discovered in Gough’s Cave, Somerset.

Scientists from London’s Natural History Museum say the skull-cups were probably used in some kind of ritual.

“If you look around the world there are examples of skull-cups in more recent times – in Tibetan culture, in Fiji in Oceania, and in India,” said Dr Silvia Bello, a palaeontologist and lead author of a scientific paper on the subject in the journal PLoS One.

“So, skulls have been used as drinking bowls, and because of the similarity of the Gough’s Cave skulls to these other examples, we imagine that that’s what these ancient people were using them for also,” she told BBC News.

Gough’s Cave is situated in the Cheddar Gorge, a deep limestone canyon on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills.

Palaeo-investigations started there a hundred years ago, with many of the finds now held at the Natural History Museum (NHM).

The site is particularly noteworthy for the discovery in 1903 of “Cheddar Man”, the complete skeleton of a male individual dating to about 10,000 years ago.

But the users – and owners – of the skulls discussed in the PLoS One article are actually from an earlier period in the history of the British Isles.

This was during a brief warm spike in a series of ice ages that allowed humans living in southern Europe to venture north into what was otherwise an utterly inhospitable landscape.

These Cro-Magnons, as we now call them, were hunter-gatherers living on their wits and, it seems, eating human flesh when the need and opportunity arose.

Gough’s Cave famously held the remains of human bones that had been butchered to extract marrow in exactly the same way as animal bones on the site had been processed.

Our modern sensibilities find the thought of cannibalism repulsive, but these people lived in a different age, Dr Bello said:

“They were a one man band; they were going out, hunting, butchering and then eating their kill. And they were extremely skilled at what they did, but then that’s how they survived.

“I think the production of the skull-cups is ritualistic. If the purpose was simply to break the skulls to extract the brain to eat it, there are much easier ways to do that.

“If food was the objective, the skull would be highly fragmented. But here you can really see they tried to preserve most of the skull bone; the cut marks tell us they tried to clean the skull, taking off every piece of soft tissue so that they could then modify it very precisely. They were manufacturing something.”

NHM colleague Professor Chris Stringer helped excavate one of the skull-cups in 1987 and is a co-author on the paper.

“We’ve known that these bones were treated in this way for 20 years; it’s been evident that there were cut marks on the skulls,” he told BBC News.

“But by applying the latest microscopic techniques and the experience we’ve got in working on butchered animal remains, as well as human remains, we can start to build up a much more detailed picture of how the Gough’s Cave remains were treated. Yes, cannibalism is the most likely explanation. What we can’t say is whether these people were killed to be eaten, or whether they died naturally. Were they even members of the same group?”

And precisely how the cups were used cannot be known with total confidence either, although in more recent examples of such practice they have held blood, wine and food during rituals.

At about 14,700 years old, the Gough’s Cave skull-cups would represent the oldest, recognised examples in the world.

The museum plans to put a detailed model of one of the skull-cups on display this March so that visitors can get a deeper insight the practices of these ancient Britons.

From BBC News.

Another article on the matter here.

Filed under: Archaeology, Exhibition, , , , , , , , ,

German excavation reveals signs of mass cannibalism (update)

Was it mass cannibalism, ritual slaughter or both? Archaeologists who unearthed the remains of 500 Stone Age corpses in the German town of Herxheim say the meat was cut off their bones as if they were livestock. One conclusion is that the people were eaten — after volunteering to be sacrificed.

How do you carve up a cow? First you cut the meat off the bones. You start by severing the muscles from the joints with a sharp knife. The fibrous meat can then easily be scraped off, from top to bottom. After you’ve removed the flesh there’s still a lot of goodness left. Deep in the long bones and vertebrae lies the marrow. To get at this delicacy you smash the bones and scrape out the marrow or simply boil it out in water. What’s left is a pile of naked bones with traces of scratching and scraping as well as the small debris of bone that contained marrow.

Archaeologists found just such a pile — a huge one — when they were excavating a Stone Age settlement in the small town of Herxheim in south-western Germany. The only difference is that the bones aren’t from cattle. Researchers found the carefully scraped remains of some 500 humans, and they haven’t even excavated half the site. “We expect the number of dead to be twice as high,” said Andrea Zeeb-Lanz, project leader of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

That’s a lot of corpses for a tiny Stone Age village. There were 10 buildings at most here in the last phase of the Linear Pottery culture of the European Neolithic Age around 5,000 to 4,950 years BC. The corpses weren’t native to this area, researchers have discovered. They came from all over Europe — from the area of what is now Paris, from the Moselle River 100 kilometers to the northwest and even from the Elbe River valley some 400 kilometers away. The broken bits of pottery lying between their ribs reveal their origin. It’s the so-called Linear Pottery that gave the entire population group its name: decorated with linear patterns pressed into the moist clay while it was being made.

Butchered by Experts

The strangers brought only the finest pottery from their home regions — in many cases even more beautiful than the pottery they placed inside the graves of their own dead at home. But the pottery was smashed to pieces and scattered over the bones, along with brand new millstones and stone blades. Everything was hacked to pieces, broken up, mixed together and poured into pits.

The anthropolgist Bruno Boulestin conducted a close examination of the bone fragments. He published his findings from one pit eight meters long in the latest edition of Antiquity magazine. The pit contained a total of 1,906 bone fragments from at least 10 people. Two of them were infants or still-born children, one was a fetus in the 34th to 36th week of pregnancy, there were two children aged six and 15 and six adults, at least one of whom was male.

All of them — babies, children, adults — were butchered by expert hands while the bones were still fresh, as the breaks and cuts show. Boulestin concluded that the human bones bore the same marks as those of slaughtered livestock, and that the dead of Herxheim were prepared as meals. He believes that marks on the bones indicate that body parts were cooked on skewers. His conclusions contradict other researchers who believe the meat was taken off the bones as part of a burial ritual, and wasn’t eaten.

No Signs of Battle Wounds

Who were the dead? Conquered enemies perhaps? Probably not, because the bones showed no signs of battle wounds. None of the skulls found was smashed, and there were no arrow heads between the ribs. The dead of Herxheim appear to have been in good health when they died. Their joints weren’t worn down, their teech were in exceptionally good condition and there was no sign of malnutrition.

The theory of conquered enemies also seems unlikely given that the small group of Herxheim villagers is unlikely to have vanquished people hundreds of kilometers away and dragged 1,000 of them back to their little hamlet in the space of just 50 years. “One could also imagine that people volunteered to come here and be ritually sacrificed,” Zeeb-Lanz told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

So what happed in Herxheim at the start of the fifth millennium BC? It’s clear that the hamlet quickly came to fame. It had been a sleepy, uneventful place since the so-called Flomborn Phase around 5,300 years BC. But around the turn of the millennium something happened that caused people from all over Europe to make pilgrimages to this place — a sensational feat of logistics and communication for that age.

Only 50 Years of Fame

But it didn’t last long. By 4,950 BC everything was over. After that there were no more deaths in Herxheim because the settlement ceased to exist. It’s a puzzling phenomenon for archaeologists because 50 years is an extremely short time for a place of such significance. “And 50 year is the maximum,” says Zeeb-Lanz. “It could all have happened in just two years or even five weeks.”

It’s clear that it wasn’t hunger that drove the inhabitants of this mysterious hamlet to carve up humans. What they did with their victims was part of a ritual, a religious ceremony. This includes the mysterious treatment of human skulls. First the skin was peeled off them. All it took was a cut across the length of the head and the skin could be peeled off the sides. Then a blow to the face at the front and the base of the neck at the back, and two blows each at the sides — the result looks like a drinking vessel.

“But probably nobody drank from them. The edges are still so sharp today that one would cut one’s lips on them,” says Zeeb-Lanz. Archeologists found these prepared skulls piled together in one place. “The more research conduct, the more mysterious this place becomes.”

But did the Herxheimers really devour the dead? It’s impossible to prove that archaeologically. Boulestin is sure they did, but not all members of the excavation team agree with him. Project leader Zeeb-Lanz is careful too: “We mustn’t forget that this was no giant settlement. Who is supposed to have eaten all this?”

SOURCE

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , , , , ,

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