Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bizarre Drinking Tool Developed By Cave Men And Women

Cheddar cave dwellers ate their own dead and used their skulls as drinking cups

Photo: Derek Adams/Natural History Museum

Skulls unearthed in a Somerset cave were skilfully fashioned into cups with the rest of the bodies probably cannibalised. There were no Christians around at the time to protest the eating of human flesh.

The cup depicted above was made from a human skull, one of numerous 'skull cups' from the cave. The skulls were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues soon after death, even though maggots, worms, slugs and other revolting creatures would have done the job for free.

The macabre collection of bone cups made from human skulls, unearthed in a Somerset cave, are the oldest of their kind, researchers believe.

The extraordinary vessels are the handiwork of early modern humans, who used stone tools to prepare and finish the containers around 14,700 years ago after the last ice age. Coming off a 20,000 year ice age these cave dwellers were taking no chances that they might get caught without enough soup bowls and drinking cups again. They could always eat one another but needed the skull bowls to drain off the blood from their brother and sister corpses and to melt snow for fresh water.

Three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and one three-year-old child, were dug up several decades ago, alongside the cracked and cut-marked remains of animal and human bones at Gough Cave in Cheddar Gorge, south-west England, famous for its delicious cheddar cheese. They have now been re-examined using new techniques.

The human bones show clear signs of butchery, suggesting that the bodies were stripped for meat and crushed for marrow before the heads were severed and turned into crockery.

There is no suggestion that the cups are trophies made from the remains of dead enemies. It is more likely that making skull cups was a traditional craft and their original owners died naturally.

"It would probably take a half day to prepare a skull cup," said Silvia Bello, the palaeontologist who led the study at the Natural History Museum in London. "Defleshing the skull was a skilled and lengthy business."

Researchers said it was impossible to know for certain how skull cups were used, but historically they have held food, blood or wine. Some are still used today in Hindu and Buddist rituals. "To us they can still seem a little strange," said Bello. "I wouldn't have my cereal in one."

Writing in the journal Plos One, the scientists describe revisiting excavated remains from the cave, including a skull cup unearthed in 1987 by Chris Stringer, head of human origins research at the museum. Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.

"This is the first time we've understood how this material was processed, and the fact that the skulls were not just cut and butchered, but were shaped in a purposeful way," said Stringer. These people were making good use of every resource available to them and had no need for grave yards.

The discarded human bones had the same cut and saw marks found on butchered animal bones at the site, and some were cracked open or crushed, as was done with animal bones to expose nutritious marrow. Only the skulls seem to have been treated with special care. The cuts and dents show they were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues soon after death.

"They systematically shaped the skulls to make them into cups. They scalped them to remove the hair, removed the eyeballs and ears, knocked off the faces, then removed the jaws and chiseled away the edges to make the rims nice and even. They did a pretty thorough job,' Stringer said.

While scientists go on an on about the so-called precision with which these artefacts were shaped by these primitive cannibals, the cups really look pretty rough and jagged around the edges and it's a real stretch to call them great examples of handiwork.

The smaller cup, made from the child's skull, would have leaked anyway because the cranial bones had not fully fused together, but the larger two might have carried food and up to two pints of stout or other beverage of choice.

"We assume it was some kind of ritual treatment. If there's not much food around they may have eaten their dead to survive. Or perhaps they did this to honour the dead, to celebrate their lives," Stringer added, grasping at straws. Let's face it, they ate each other. End of story.

The cave dwellers were among the first humans to return to Britain at the end of the last ice age. The island was unpopulated and almost completely under ice 20,000 years ago, but as the climate warmed, plants and animals moved across Doggerland, a now submerged land bridge that linked Britain to mainland Europe. Where food went, early humans followed and brought art, craft and toolmaking skills with them.

The ages of the remains at Gough Cave suggest it was home to humans for at least 100 years. The cave is well-sheltered and, with skin flaps over the entrance, would have made a cosy abode, Stringer said, "a little nook where lovers nest and get it on. Just Molly and me...and baby makes three, we're happy in our cave heaven." The residents were ideally placed to hunt passing deer and wild boar, while up on the Mendip Hills roamed reindeer and horses.

In the 1900s, several hundred tonnes of soil were removed from the cave to open it up as a tourist attraction, a move that may have destroyed priceless ancient remains. The skull cup and other bones unearthed in 1987 survived only because they were lodged behind a large rock.

In 1903, field researchers working in the cave's entrance uncovered Cheddar Man, made famous modernly by the "cheesehead" fans of the Green Bay Packers professional football team. Cheddar man is the oldest complete skeleton in Britain at more than 9,000 years old. Because the cave dwellers had no milk producing domestic animals it remains a mystery how they were able to produce their famous cheddar cheese.

A painting of a mammoth was found on the cave wall in 2007. Other artefacts from the site include an exquisitely carved mammoth ivory spearhead.

A precise replica of one of the skull cups, complete with cut marks, will go on display at the Natural History Museum in London from 1 March for three months. Museum visitors will be permitted to sip water from replica for a fee of two quid. The consumption of human blood will not be allowed for sanitary reasons.

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