Researchers of IPHES has taken part in an investigation that identifies a case of ritual cannibalism about 14,500 years ago in Great Britain

The hominids that inhabited Gough’s Cave used also skulls as bowls, probably within a symbolic treatment of the bodies

The research was led by researchers at the Natural History Museum of London and University College of London

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More than a century ago were found human remains from 14,700 years old in Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK). Since then, several researchers have obtained different information about these fossils. In this context,  new research led by the Natural History Museum (NHML) and University College of London (UCL), in which have participated three members of IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) has proven that those hominids were cannibals and also used the skulls of their peers as bowls, probably within a ritual treatment of the bodies.

One jaw from the human remains set of Gough's Cave
One jaw from the human remains set of Gough’s Cave – IPHES

These conclusions are disclosed in an article published in April in the Journal of Human Evolution. The study, which has as principal authors Dr. Silvia Bello and Dr. Simon Parfitt of the Natural History Museum of London, are co-authored by Palmira Saladié, Isabel Cáceres and Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, researchers of IPHES.

Human remains from Gough’s Cave were recovered for the most part in 1880 and later in 1903. There are bones of whole skeleton of several individuals. In the same cave also was recovered a mammoth carving and thousands of Palaeolithic flint tools.

Simon Parfitt of University College of London (first line left), Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum of london (second line, in the left of image) next to Isabel Cáceres IPHES. Palmira Saladié on bBack
Simon Parfitt of University College of London (first line left), Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum of london (second line, in the left of image) next to Isabel Cáceres IPHES. Palmira Saladié on back – IPHES

“Recently using modern techniques of radiocarbon dating (carbon-14), researchers from UCL and NHML discovered that the bones found in this cave had been deposited over a very short period around 14,700 years ago, perhaps in several events”, say Palmira Saladié.

Now, in the latest study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the researchers used three-dimensional imaging techniques to examine human remains found in the cave. So, they have identified on the bones of hominids cut marks (striae made stone tools during the skinning and defleshing of the bodies), bone fractures for marrow consumption and abundant human tooth marks, “the irrefutable proof of cannibalism”, asserts the same researcher.

The skulls are treated differently because they broke with care, shaping bowl. “In fact, its form shows many similarities with those recovered in the Cueva del Mirador, in the Sierra de Atapuerca. Nevertheless, this deposit have a younger age because is related with the shepherds of the Bronze Age”, noted Palmira Saladié.

In a broader context, the treatment of human corpses and the manufacture and use of skull-cup in Gough Cave have parallels with other Palaeolithic sites in central and western Europe. This suggests that cannibalism during the Magdalenian was part of a common mortuary practice that combines the processing and consumption of bodies with the ritual use of skull-cup, according the conclusions of this group of researchers.

The opportunity to participate in this study for Isabel Cáceres, Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo and Palmira Saladié all from IPHES, grew out of the work done in a researcher program of the AGAUR (Agency for Management of University and Research Grants) “Projectes Batista i Roca” specifically for collaboration between Catalan and English institutions (call 2011), being the principal investigator Andreu Ollé, also member of IPHES.

For further information:

Silvia M. Bello, Palmira Saladié, Isabel Cáceres, Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, Simon A. Parfitt. “Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK): The human remains from head to toe”. Journal of Human Evolution, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.02.016

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