Ancient Britons used scooped-out human skulls as drinking cups in a mysterious ritual that also involved eating some of the flesh inside, scientists said Thursday.
The 14,700-year-old skulls, belonging to two adults and a child aged about three, were found in a cave in Cheddar Gorge, southwest England, the Natural History Museum in London said.
The ice age humans cleaned out the skulls and "meticulously" shaped them into gruesome goblets by retouching the broken bone edges, said Silvia Bello, a fossil human expert at the museum.
"We suspected that these early humans were highly skilled at manipulating human bodies once they died, and our research reveals just what great anatomists they were," Bello said in a statement.
"The cut-marks and dents show how the heads were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues shortly after death. The skulls were then modified by removing the bones of the face and the base of the skull," she added.
"Finally, these cranial vaults were meticulously shaped into cups by retouching the broken edges, possibly to make them more regular. All in all it was a very painstaking process given the tools available."
Researchers said there was evidence the ancient humans ate some of the flesh and also took out bone marrow for nutritional purposes.
But they said cannibalism did not seem to be the main purpose.
"There was clear determination to preserve the cranial vault as complete as possible. It is likely that this was part of some symbolic ritual and not mere necessity," Bello said.
Chris Stringer, a human origins expert at the museum, said the amount of work that went into fashioning the cups suggested a special purpose and that they may have been used to hold blood, wine or even food.
The human skull cups are the first to have been discovered in Britain and the oldest examples found anywhere in the world, according to the research, published in the journal PLoS One.
The practice of using human skulls as containers has been documented in other parts of the globe, including in Scandanavia by the Vikings, but actual examples are extremely rare, it said.
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