February 17, 2011

Earliest drinking skull-caps (15-12 thousand years ago)

I had no idea that skull-caps as drinking vessels is not an ethnographic oddity, but a widely attested practice. Besides the infamous Krum, and Herodotus' Scythians I did not have any other examples in mind. A new paper is a good primer on the subject, and it also presents evidence for the earliest known use of skull-caps from Gough's Cave in England.

From the paper:
At Gough's Cave there is unambiguous evidence for the intentional controlled production of skull-cups, resembling those from the Le Placard and Isturitz as well as modern ethnographic examples [8]. The distribution of cut and percussion marks, however, suggests that this meticulous shaping of the cranial vault was preceded by the processing of the cadavers for consumption of body tissues (including bone marrow from the mandible), with a pattern of cuts and impact damage that is identical to that found on other large mammals from the cave [26]–[27].
PLoS ONE 6(2): e17026. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017026

Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups

Silvia M. Bello et al.

The use of human braincases as drinking cups and containers has extensive historic and ethnographic documentation, but archaeological examples are extremely rare. In the Upper Palaeolithic of western Europe, cut-marked and broken human bones are widespread in the Magdalenian (~15 to 12,000 years BP) and skull-cup preparation is an element of this tradition.

Principal Findings
Here we describe the post-mortem processing of human heads at the Upper Palaeolithic site of Gough's Cave (Somerset, England) and identify a range of modifications associated with the production of skull-cups. New analyses of human remains from Gough's Cave demonstrate the skilled post-mortem manipulation of human bodies. Results of the research suggest the processing of cadavers for the consumption of body tissues (bone marrow), accompanied by meticulous shaping of cranial vaults. The distribution of cut-marks and percussion features indicates that the skulls were scrupulously 'cleaned' of any soft tissues, and subsequently modified by controlled removal of the facial region and breakage of the cranial base along a sub-horizontal plane. The vaults were also ‘retouched’, possibly to make the broken edges more regular. This manipulation suggests the shaping of skulls to produce skull-cups.

Three skull-cups have been identified amongst the human bones from Gough's Cave. New ultrafiltered radiocarbon determinations provide direct dates of about 14,700 cal BP, making these the oldest directly dated skull-cups and the only examples known from the British Isles.



Strandloper said...

A skull seems an obvious choice for a vessel. There are not that many thing in nature that are that durable or naturaly shaped for such means. I imagine the practice has been in use for millions of years.

Clay said...

The date of this find is interesting too. This is relatively soon after the last glacial maximum. I did not think many people lived in Britain at that time.

Anonymous said...

The Longobard king Alboin made a cup with the skull of the defeated Gepids King Cunimund.
Maybe it's only a legend, but it can be an ancient use.


Katharós said...

Skull caps as a drinking vessel and a form of hidden cannibalism are still practiced among the Aghori a still active Indian sect.
Just google Aghori in the picture section of google.