The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain

“A Palaeolithic human skull from Gough’s Cave identified as having potential cannibalistic connotations.” Picture Credit: Ethan Doyle White. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikimedia Commons.

 15. Elsewhere, in late Paleolithic Britain, cannibalism may have become a favorite death ritual.

Just under twenty thousand years later, humans again returned briefly to Britain in another glacial lull. Groups of hunters once again crossed the land bridge, and 14,700 years ago, a group of Horse Hunters settled the caves of Cheddar Gorge. For a few seasons, the caves formed the base for the hunter’s activities.  In Gough’s cave, previously famous for the remains of Cheddar man, Britain’s oldest intact skeleton, archaeologists discovered a refuse pit containing the gnawed bones of the Horse hunter’s prey. Horses, deer, grouse, and hares all featured as part of their diet.  However, amongst the remains of these ancient dinners was a grizzly surprise.

The refuse pit also contained the disarticulated remains of five humans- including a three-year-old child. Archaeologists examined the bones and found that someone had carefully stripped the flesh from them. In 42% of these cases, those completing the grizzly task used their teeth instead of flint blades. A third of the bones had been deliberately broken, seemingly to extract the marrow. Finally, someone scooped the soft tissues from the skulls and smoothed the edges of the empty craniums to form them into cups. Based on the evidence, it seems that before diminishing herds of their prey had driven them from the area, the horse hunters had turned to cannibalism.

However, the horse hunters also marked the bones with a zig-zag pattern that did not correspond with any of the filleting marks. Dr Silva Bello, a scientist at the National History Museum, London used 3D analysis to examine the cut marks and determine that they were deliberate. The marks form the oldest examples of engraved human bone. They also suggest something else was going on besides dining on the dead. For the horse, herds may well have been diminishing in the location of Cheddar Gorge. However, there was plenty of other game available.

Dr Bello believes that the bones are an example of Endocannibalism, a mortuary ritual where mourners consume the flesh of the deceased as an act of remembrance. The Gough’s Cave bones show no signs of violent death and the careful shaping of the skulls and carving of their bones after defleshing suggests that mourners were carving them as an act of remembrance. The defleshing may have even occurred because the deceased died some distance from the cave and disarticulation made them more portable.  Either way, the dead had not merely become dinner.