Evidence of cannibalistic culture found in Cheddar caves

PUBLISHED: 09:00 23 April 2015

A skull cup from Gough's Cave (Picture: The Trustees Of The Natural History Museum, London).

A skull cup from Gough's Cave (Picture: The Trustees Of The Natural History Museum, London).

© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London [year of publication]. All Rights Reserved.

CANNIBALS carried out the 'ritualistic' eating of people in Cheddar in a 'sophisticated culture' of butchering.

Skull bowls (Picture: Natural History Museum).Skull bowls (Picture: Natural History Museum).

But there is no need to panic – it was 14,700 years ago.

The Natural History Museum, the University College London and some Spanish universities have been carrying out new research on bones found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar.

The work, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, shows a far greater level of cannibalism than was previously recorded.

The bones were mostly discovered in the caves between 1800 and 1992.

They have been the subject of extensive research over the years, but scientists and researchers have used new radiocarbon techniques for the paper.

Dr Silvia Bello, lead researcher in earth sciences at the Natural History Museum in London, said: “We’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier research.

“We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow.”

The paper says the early modern humans carried out a ‘sophisticated culture’ of butchering and carving up human remains.

The research shows the remains were deposited over a very short period of time which suggests the inhabitants of the cave may have returned for a short time, possibly for hunting and burying their dead.

The early people living in the caves were the Magdalenians, hunter-gatherers who entered Britain from the Netherlands and Belgium around 15,000 years ago.

Hugh Cornwell, director and Cheddar Caves and Gorge said: “I am delighted archaeologists have come out in favour of the fact of cannibalism in the caves.

“When Dr Roger Jacobi and Chris Stringer first highlighted the marks of cannibalism, people weren’t ready to accept it.”

Mr Cornwell said how isotype analysis showed those who were eaten were not the horse-eaters who lived in Cheddar, but another tribe who may have infringed on their territory.

In 2011, the remains found in Cheddar revealed the first evidence in the UK of skulls being used as cups.

Simon Parfitt, a researcher from the University College London, said: “Further analysis along the lines used to study Gough’s Cave will help to establish whether the type of ritualistic cannibalism practiced there is a regional phenomenon, or a more widespread practice found throughout the Magdalenian world.”

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