These skulls-turned-goblets may have been used as vessels for blood, food or potent drinks during rituals performed thousands of years ago.
Ancient skull cups have been found at other archaeological sites, and there are modern-day accounts of peoples ranging from 19th-century aboriginal Australians to Tibetan holy men using such tumblers. But at roughly 14,700 years of age, the English cups are the oldest known examples that have been precisely dated, and Bello's new study is the first to explain –- in often stomach-wrenching detail -- exactly how the cups were fashioned. The study appears in today's issue of the open-access journal PLoS ONE.
The bones that gave rise to the new findings were unearthed decades ago at an archaeological site called Gough's Cave in southwestern England. Combing through fragments of ancient skeletons, Bello and her colleagues noticed that the human jawbones had been scraped and split in exactly the same way that animal jawbones are treated to extract the nutritious bone marrow. That suggests the human remains had served as food.
Oddly, though, there were also several large, intact sections of the rounded top of the skull. Why hadn't the diners shattered those skull tops to get at the meat underneath?
Using stone blades as sharp as modern kitchen knives, the cup-maker cut the head off the body and detached the lower jaw. The tongue, lips, ears and nose were removed and the eyes and cheeks cut out. The scalp was peeled back before the rounded skull-top was separated from the rest of the skull.
Skilled butchers that they were, ancient humans would have needed no more than a day to shape a cranium into a bowl, Bello estimates. She argues that the bowls were used for ceremonies by people who knew or were even related to the dead.
The evidence that the skulls were fashioned into some kind of object is convincing, say several experts. But scientist Miriam Haidle of Germany's University of Tubingen said in an e-mail that the conclusion that the skulls were used for containers is "speculation."
Early humans shouldn't be seen as "good savages," Boulestin said. "They were human like us. They waged war, they committed violence."
In response to her colleagues' views, Bello says that though she can't prove the role that the skulls played long ago, modern-day humans are known to eat and drink from similar vessels. She doubts that the skulls belonged to enemies because the other bones show no signs of injury.
The practices described in the new study may seem ghastly to us, but they were merely the ancients' "way of treating dead bodies," Bello said, adding, "I'm not saying I'm used to it!"