Ritual Cannibalism at Gough’s Cave, Cheddar

The engraved Human radius from Gough's Cave.
The engraved Human radius from Gough’s Cave.
©Trustees of the NHM, London

Analysis on an engraved human bone from the well-known Palaeolithic site of Gough’s Cave, Cheddar, Somerset has shown that in Magdalenian times (about 17–12,000 years before present) some form of “ritualistic‟ cannibalism took place there.

The use of human bones as raw material to produce utilitarian or symbolic tools is rare and, prior to the Mesolithic (about 10,000 years before present), no human bones were thought to have been artistically decorated. In a new study, scientists at The Natural History Museum and University College London have now compared more than 400 cut-marks and engravings on both human and non-human bones, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, and found that at least one human bone from Gough’s Cave has been engraved. This follows on from previous studies of the bones, which confirmed cannibalistic behaviour and showed the modification of human skulls into bowls (skull-cups).

 Enlargement of the engraving.
Top: Enlargement of the engraving. Bottom: photomicrograph of engraved lines.
©Trustees of the NHM, London

The bone,  a radius from a lightly-built adult, appears to have been disarticulated, filleted, chewed, and then engraved with a zig-zag design before being broken to extract bone marrow. As the zig-zagging incisions were located on a region of the radius without muscle attachments, they could not be attributed to filleting. The zig-zagging incisions are undoubtedly engraved marks, produced with no utilitarian purpose but purely for artistic or symbolic representation. The way the bone was modified suggests that the filleting of human bodies during cannibalism and the engraving of this human bone were intricately related, as part of a distinct ritual practice. The context of the engravings is not known, one theory is that they could possibly have been a part of a “story-tale‟ about the individual, events from their life and the way that they died, or the marking could have played a special part in a ceremony. What is clear, however, is that the engraving was part of a cannibalistic ritual and the process was not just about treating the dead person as food.

Gough’s Cave, at the foot of Cheddar Gorge, has been studied by archaeologists since it was developed as a show cave in the 1880s. It has been largely emptied of sediment, with the most recent excavations, by the Natural History Museum, finishing in 1992.That uncovered intensively-processed human bones, intermingled with abundant butchered large mammal remains and a diverse range of flint, bone, antler and ivory artefacts. Studies have continued since the excavations finished.

Silvia Bello, the lead author of the new study, told Darkness Below: “I am personally very excited about this discovery. Research in human Cannibalism always attracts interest, and suggesting that in the case of Gough’s Cave it was practised as a form of ritual (and not as a form of survival), may be surprising. But I believe we now have very strong evidence for this. In the future, we are aiming to understand how common or rare this way of disposing dead bodies was in the past.”

Left: Reconstruction of the radius from several pieces. Right: Drawings of Magdalenian engraved artefacts. (A) Gough’s Cave radius; (B) Engraved lissoir from Brassempouy (France); (C) Engraved lissoir from Duruthy (France); and (D-F) Engraved lissoirs from Isturitz (France).
©Trustees of the NHM, London

Work continues and the Museum acknowledges the continued support of the Longleat Estate in allowing access and study of the Gough’s Cave Collection.

Correspondent: Graham Mullan