Ancient Brits were cannibals, scientists say
A human skull shows evidence of cut marks, indicating it was manipulated for use as a cup, scientists say.
February 17th, 2011
07:48 AM ET

Ancient Brits were cannibals, scientists say

Britons' fondness for a spot of tea is legendary. What isn't so well known is that their ancestors sipped their drinks from human skulls.

Scientists working at a site in Somerset, England, have found the first evidence of cannibalism in the British Isles, including the use of skulls for drinking cups, according to a study published Thursday by the Public Library of Science.

"New analyses of human remains from Gough's Cave demonstrate the skilled post-mortem manipulation of human bodies," write researchers Silvia M. Bello, Simon A. Parfitt and Chris B. Stringer with London's Natural History Museum and University College London.

They also found evidence - tool marks and prying damage - that human bodies were methodically butchered 14,000 years ago and bone marrow was removed for eating. The bodies' craniums were carefully separated from the jaw and facial bones and the edges were smoothed out for usefulness and comfort, they wrote.

"This shows us the complexity of human behavior in ancient Britain. ... They treated their dead in many different ways," Stringer told The Australian. "It seems gruesome to us, but there are people in Asia today who aren't even meat eaters, who treasure human skulls and use them as drinking bowls."

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Filed under: Science • United Kingdom
soundoff (245 Responses)
  1. Kevin

    Considering the scarcity of evidence, how do we know that this was actually culturally widespread and not just a "Sawney Bean" type isolated case?

    February 17, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  2. Len McDougall

    The term "Briton" is non-descriptive, because the British, as we know them today, are a conglomeration of Vandals, Gauls, Celts, Normans, Saxons... The original residents were Celts, and acts of inferred cannabalism were primarily religious rituals – like Crow Indians taking a bite from the liver of a slain enemy, et al.

    February 17, 2011 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
  3. randy

    Liberals were alive and well even back then.

    February 17, 2011 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
  4. Me

    I don't like how this Stringer person asserts that "YES THIS IS A GRUESOME but WAIT, some other people in Asia are messed up so don't worry – they still win in the crazy contest."

    February 17, 2011 at 9:02 am | Report abuse |
  5. mike

    @Philip Dinosaurs with food in their stomach millions of years ago = found skeleton from 14,000 years ago = humans eating each other. That really doesn't make sense to me. From just reading this article the whole conclusion is weak, base on "manipulated remains". If it said, "Found Human Rocky Mountain Oysters in stomach of remains"; that would be more convincing.

    February 17, 2011 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  6. Dan

    How is using a skull as a cup considered to be canibalism?
    This is bad science, these idiots don't even know what canibalism is.

    February 17, 2011 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
  7. Henry Miller

    "It's only a cultural thing that prevents us from eating each other."

    I hear we don't taste good and we're kinda tough and chewy.

    February 17, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
    • BobW

      I don't think you can make that kind of generalization. It depends upon the cut and also the individual. A marathoner might be tough and stringy while an obese grain-fed person might be moist and juicy due to the marbliazation of the fat.

      February 17, 2011 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  8. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Ritual cannibalism was practiced in many parts of Europe up until the Christian era. Usually, as the Roman Empire got into an area, they shut down any religious practice that included cannibalism. It was because of the misreporting of the Communion practice of Transubstantiation that the Romans believed that early Christians were cannibals, too, which explained why they tried so hard to shut their practices down. Ritual cannibalism continued in the Germanic areas until around the time of Charlemagne and apparently in Scandinavia until after the reign of Harald Hardrada.
    What it comes down to is we were not as civilized as we would like to pretend we were.

    February 17, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  9. dave

    looks like an ash tray to me. I bet for every person who was eating human bone marrow there was several vomiting

    February 17, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  10. kayaker247

    Great! Thanks... Now I'm hungry!

    February 17, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jorge

    I've been secretly wondering how a PETA freak would taste au vin with blue potatoes and snow peas, now I don't feel so alone...

    February 17, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
    • sean

      I would think that they would taste too nutty!

      February 17, 2011 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  12. Henry Miller

    "Yes, that was Europe and then a great light shone from the East."

    Yeah, it's called "the Sun." Comes up every morning, most places, though sometimes that's not obvious in London.

    February 17, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  13. Vanilla Gorilla

    this article explains some of the cuisine I experienced while in England
    remember Malthaus – I believe in his thesis he suggested that to solve the over crowding in London they should consider cannibalism the biggest challenges to that are what side dishes to serve and selecting the right wine to compliment broiled waif the ultimate in recycling and we are probably headed that way given the horrific rise in food prices worldwide

    February 17, 2011 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Hanibal

      For sides and wine might I suggest fava beans and a nice chianti

      February 17, 2011 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  14. DanTanaman

    And British food hasn't improved much since.

    February 17, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  15. JFWilder

    Blood tea and scones at high noon at Stonehenge. Now we know what they were up to there.

    February 17, 2011 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
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