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Natural History Museum Reveals Earliest Human Skull-Cups

14,700-year-old human skull-cup to go on display to visitors on 1 March 2011

Research published by palaeoanthropologists at the Natural History Museum, London, reveals Britain’s strange past with the earliest known examples of human skull-cups (containers made from human skulls) in the world, and the first evidence for their manufacture in the UK. A replica of one of the specimens will go on display at the Museum on 1 March 2011 for three months.

While the tradition of using braincases as drinking cups or containers has been documented in a variety of past, and even present, communities, archaeological evidence is extremely rare. Although the Cro-Magnons (European early modern humans) were skilled hunter-gatherers, tool makers and artists, they also developed complex ways of treating their dead, some of which are rather disturbing to our modern sensibilities. The three skull-cups identified among human bones from Gough’s Cave, Somerset, are the only physical evidence of skull-cups from our forebears in the UK, and Museum research reveals for the first time the intricate process involved in this unusual practice.

Dr Silvia Bello, palaeontologist and lead author, describes the production of the skull-cups. ‘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. 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. 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’

Professor Chris Stringer, who helped excavate one of the skull-cups in 1987, said ‘This research shows how extensive the processing of these human remains was. It’s impossible to know how the skull-cups were used back then, but in recent examples they may hold blood, wine or food during rituals.’

At about 14,700* years old, the skull-cups from Gough’s Cave are the oldest directly dated examples in the world. A precise replica of one of the skull-cups, complete with cut marks, will go on display in the Natural History Museum’s Dinosaur Way from 1 March 2011 for three months. For more information on the human skull-cups, the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB) and the forthcoming display please visit

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