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This Study About Early Human Cannibalism Is So Awesomely Gross

If the walls of the cave could talk, they would scream bloody murder.
April 17, 2015, 9:00am
​A human skull. Credit: Ben Francis.

Some 14,700 years ago, in a cave in southwest England, humans were dining on the flesh of other humans and drinking from their skulls.

We know of these gory events because the Paleolithic inhabitants of this natural shelter—which is called Gough's Cave today—left an enormous amount of fossil evidence of cannibalism, in addition to amassing a large cache of animal and human bones.

But wait, it gets creepier. According to a study published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution, the bulk of the disturbing remains were deposited within a short period of time, suggesting a sudden and brutal occupation.

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Moreover, the authors of the study, led by paleontologist Silvia Bello of London's Natural History Museum, identified new evidence of ritual bone modification from the cave.

"The human remains have been the subject of several studies," Bello said in a statement. "In a previous analysis, we could determine that the cranial remains had been carefully modified to make skull-cups."

"During this research, however, we've identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded earlier," she continued. "We've found evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow."

That sounds gross, but at the same time, it's undeniably awesome. The real paleontological history of this cave reads like some over-the-top horror movie, in which people hide in dark corners, snapping open the bones of fellow humans to feast on the marrow, or displaying their human trophies on the cave walls.

The occupants probably didn't eat each other out of hunger—judging from the heaps of gnawed animal bones, food was not scarce. Instead, it's likely the cave dwellers' cannibalism was ritualistic in nature, which makes the whole thing ten times creepier, especially considering that this behavior might not have been a one-off case of indulgence in the other, other white meat.

Reflections in Gough's Cave. Credit: Chris Allen

"A recurring theme of this period is the remarkable rarity of burials and how commonly we find human remains mixed with occupation waste at many sites," said study co-author and archaeologist Simon Parfitt in a statement.

"Further analysis along the lines used to study Gough's Cave will help to establish whether the type of ritualistic cannibalism practiced there is a regional 'Creswellian' phenomenon, or a more widespread practice found throughout the Magdalenian world," he continued.

Regardless of how far-reaching these cannibalistic rituals were amongst the Magdalenians, it's clear that the cave's eerie death toll just kept on climbing even after the cessation of ritual cannibalism. For example, Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, known as the Cheddar Man, belonged to a man who was violently killedwith a blow to the head in Gough's Cave around 7,150 BCE.

Today, Gough's Cave is a kid-friendly show cave that attracts tourists from around the world. But despite its friendly modern makeover, it's clear that if the walls of the cave could talk, they would scream bloody murder.