Ice Age cups crafted from crania

An English cave serves up the oldest known vessels made from human skulls

Ice Age folk who lived in what’s now southwestern England gruesomely went from heads off to bottoms up. Bones excavated at a cave there include the oldest known examples of drinking cups or containers made out of human skulls, says a team led by paleontologist Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum in London.

HEADY VESSEL Ice Age people used stone tools to shape and smooth the bony rim of this 14,700-year-old skull cup found in an English cave. Copyright Natural History Museum

Measurements of a naturally occurring form of carbon in the skulls places them at about 14,700 years old, Bello and her colleagues report in a paper published online February 16 in PLoS ONE. Prehistoric cave denizens cleaned the skulls before using stone tools to shape the upper parts of the brain cases into containers, the researchers say.

Bello suspects that Ice Age Britons hoisted hollowed-out crania in rituals of some kind. Other human bones found near the skull cups show signs of flesh and marrow removal, a result either of cannibalism or mortuary practices. The striking similarities between the cave finds and historical examples of drinking cups made out of skulls further support a ritual role for the Ice Age receptacles, Bello says.

Two French sites previously yielded skull containers presumed to date to between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago, but those finds have not been directly dated.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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