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. Margret

    That would be the Donner party...not Donnelly.

    February 17, 2011 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Erin

      Correcto Margret.

      February 17, 2011 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Geniveeve

      No, I think Donelly is correct. Not many people know of the lost tribe of Irishmen who emigrated to the nascent New World and got lost somewhere between the Rockies and the Sierras (or two other bars they frequented) and had to eat their way out. Messy and forgettable event.

      February 17, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Charlie Everett WA.

    Given the difficulty and dangers involved in finding protein and fats in a hunter-gathered society, it's not surprising cannibalism was an option. Taking down a giant ox or an Irish elk, let alone a mammoth or a cave bear, was a lethal undertaking. Most protein probably came from varmints or fish and shellfish. What is interesting is the enduring notion that "monsters in the woods will eat you." From the Grendel in Beowulf to giants and trolls in Fairy Tales, these terrors have frightened bedtime children for hundreds of years. Now we know there's a truthful basis to these ancient fictions.

    February 17, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  3. dee

    Watch "The Road" – it seems so real this cannibalism.. the worst is that Hannibal Lecter sequel of him growing up.. crraazy!!

    February 17, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  4. Socks

    Those are bite marks, and explain the bad teeth.

    February 17, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Smashingly funny, eh wot?

      February 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Unit34AHunt

    Man Corn: It's What's For Dinner!

    February 17, 2011 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
    • JLV

      That's Long Pig. And this is just proof of ancient recycling. Reduce. ReUse.

      February 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jnyc

    Just shows that it isn't just a "dog eat dog" world.

    February 17, 2011 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • JLV

      Human it's what's for dinner. Yeah, Brains!

      February 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. AM

    Guess British food was bad even back then!

    February 17, 2011 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  8. Old Soldier

    Nothing new here. Diggers found Neanderthal bones (burned, and split open to get at the marrow) in Cro-Magnon abodes years ago in multiple locations. Cro-Magnon, after migrating to Europe, co-existed with Neanderthal man for a time (eventually they drove the Neanderthals into extinction) and flourished in southern Europe during the last glacial age. As far as "cannibalism" goes, that's a societal norm to not eat Charlie from next door. If there's no societal norm against something, it isn't wrong. Different times for different folks. Meat was meat, nothing else. Until man developed a respect for other humans and their remains (not universal today even in seemingly civilized places...remember the dead US security forces hung from the bridge and burned in Iraq????), there were no moral issues about eating a human body. Other animals eat their own, and we are "evolved" animals, don't forget. Eating an enemy's heart or other organs was a common act thought to imbue the diner with the dead's strength and prowess. So get over it. We have a few of that type in US prisons today. And with the popularity/fixation on vampires today, is cannibalism that far off? Gotta run...Charlie next door looks like he gained some weight over the winter.

    February 17, 2011 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • edanma

      Cannibalism of any sort is taboo in modern culture. Even a hint of that is bound to gain sensationalist publicity in any forum, especially CNN. How many hits has CNN garnered off of this "news" story alone? I still respect CNN, for the most part. However, I do have to question some of its practices on the Internet, especially regarding user "opinions" that bridge the gap between legitimate social commentary and backwards socio-political hate-mongering. However, CNN is a business, so I'm sure a few mea culpas, and other associated "I'm sorry" soliloquies, are allowed.

      February 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Elizabeth

    There is no mention of tooth marks on the bones. They would definitely be there if in fact the bones had been stripped, gnawed and the flesh eaten.

    February 17, 2011 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
    • JLV

      You forgot about the cracked crab legs. And by crab I mean that crabby guy next door.

      February 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jordan

    Other articles reporting this same story focused on the fact that this most likely involved heavy ritual and was less about "eating." Not surprisingly, this site is seeking a sensationalist angle at the expense of the meaningful information...

    February 17, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Iconoclast

    Goes a long ways towards explaining "football" hooligans and Sid Vicious. Might be the source of our fear of trolls as well.

    February 17, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mark Couvillion

    In the interest of political correctness we should demand reparations from Briton for such crimes against humanity.

    February 17, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. F Daniel Gray

    The principal importance of this 'discovery," is a debunking of the nostrums surrounding religion; e.g., the planet is 6,000 years old, Adam and Eve (white of course), and "powerful" Gods doing miracles. Not to speak of the idolization of the dead. In a less sophisticated state ( no "leaders" philosophizing) of course humans were more utilitarian when regarding their surroundings, It's not a horrible practice as we seek to imply. In the not too distant future, killing, revenge, including the arrogance of capital punishment, will be recognized as "primitive" behavior, and distasteful. The other important aspect is that technology (using tools seems to be a genetic trait). And our electronic advances are no more impressive than those of milleniums ago.

    February 17, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • JLV

      So your saying we should commit cannibalism because you don't believe in the supernatural?

      February 17, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. John

    The notion of cannibalism gives people shivers while killing for control over resources makes them shrug at best?

    February 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. tony

    Running a Pub is Britain's oldest profession.

    February 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • roxi

      that would be a black smith

      February 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • JLV

      ROFLOL!!!

      February 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shaun and Ed

      That's why if zombies ever arise, I'll be going to the Winchester.....

      February 17, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
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