Cannibalism in Stone Age Britain was a method to dispose of the dead

Cannibalism widely practiced in the Stone Age as a cultural ritual to dispose of the dead.

RESEARCH AND COMMENT: The Times reports that “cannibalism was widely practised” in Stone Age Britain and north-west Europe about 15,000 years ago according to a study. The interesting part of this study is that the researchers believe that cannibalism wasn’t about food and sustenance. It was about a “method to dispose of the dead”.

The researchers decided that there was an abundance of food as indicated by the remains of deer and horses discovered with human remains in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.

There were signs that the human bones had been cut and chewed by human teeth. Also, the skulls had been crafted into cups.

They decided that cannibalism was a “customary funerary practice” among peoples who had travelled north in mass migrations from southern France and northern Spain. This happened when the glaciers receded after the Ice Age.

A further study published in Quarterary Science Reviews decided that the cannibalism at Gough’s Cave was not an isolated incident. The researchers say that the humans engaging in cannibalism at that time belonged to the Magdalenian culture. A race of people often ate their dead. The culture continued in north-west Europe. Eventually, the people were replaced by those that originated in Italy and this race preferred to bury their dead hence the continuing practice today, 2023.

The Natural History Museum has some more on this. Dr. Silvia Bello, a Natural History Museum scientist and a specialist in this area said that, “The evidence at Gough’s Cave points to a sophisticated culture of butchering and carving human remains.”

Upper jaw of a teenager. Found at Gough’s cave, this 14,700-year-old bone is in two parts with cut marks where flesh has been removed. Photo: Natural History Museum.

They found the remains of several individuals including a teenager and a three-year-old child which clearly indicated that they were eaten. Many of the bones were chewed by humans and the long bones and ribs had been cracked open and gnawed to extract marrow within the bones and grease. And there were signs that the soft tissue had been removed carefully. As mentioned, three skulls were shaped into cups or bowls.

One human forearm bone had been engraved with zigzag markings. The researchers decided that they were the oldest example of an engraved human bone ever found.

The culture appears to be the manifestation of a belief system of that time. My thought is that it may have been a kind of religious ceremony to bring peace of mind. I don’t know. I’m guessing but there seems to be an element here of passing the spirit of one individual who is dead to one who is living. Perhaps they thought that it helped to allow the dead individuals to continue living. Just a thought as I said. But certainly, an ancient belief system when cannibalism was not regarded as repugnant.

The Magdalenians were hunter gatherers. The museum say that they probably entered Britain from Belgium and the Netherlands. At that time there was a land bridge connecting Belgium with Britain. They were skilled toolmakers. They discovered thousands of flint tools. And objects carved from ivory and reindeer antlers.

Apparently, the idea of making bowls and cups out of human skulls was widely practised worldwide at that time. The Vikings did it for example. The ones found at Gough’s Cave are the earliest known examples.

The skulls were carefully cleaned shortly after death. There were marks on the bones which indicated that the soft tissue was removed from skull including lips, cheeks and tongue and the eyes extracted. “Then the bones of the face and the base of the skull were carefully removed. Finally, the cranial vaults were meticulously shaped into cups” according to Dr Bello.

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