CHEDDAR GORGE, UNITED KINGDOM—How do you make a drinking cup out of a human skull? It's fairly easy if you have some sharp tools—and a strong stomach. Scalp the head; remove the ears, eyes, lower jaw, and other pesky parts; and buff the jagged edges. Voilà! You've got a skull cup fit to toast your friends or your enemies.
Humans have been making skull cups for thousands of years, and some, such as members of the Aghori sect of India , still do it today. Now a team analyzing bones from a cave in southern England has found what it claims to be the earliest evidence for the practice, during the ice age nearly 15,000 years ago. But researchers are still pondering just why this particular style of wassail cup came into fashion.
The new evidence comes from Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, where thousands of tourists flock each year to hike along cliff tops and eat local cheese. During excavations at the cave in the 1920s and again between 1987 and 1992, archaeologists found numerous prehistoric human bones, including several skulls. Two years ago, radiocarbon experts, directly dating human bones from the site, reported that the cave had been occupied 14,700 years ago, during the time of the so-called Magdalenian culture—a period of intense symbolic and artistic activity all across Europe.
A new team, led by paleontologist Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, undertook a detailed study of three skulls that appeared to have been heavily modified by the cave's occupants. From the pattern of cut marks, slice marks, and abrasions, Bello and her colleagues report online today in PLoS ONE that the skulls had been deliberately fashioned into cups  or some other kinds of containers. For example, percussion marks along the front of the skull were consistent with it having been struck several times with a stone to remove the bones making up the nose and face; cut marks inside the skull's eye sockets appeared to have been made during removal of the eyes with a flint tool; and cut marks on three lower jaws found with the skulls indicated that they had been carefully removed along with the cheeks.
In their paper, the authors cite numerous examples of skull cup manufacture through the ages: In addition to modern cases such as the Aghori, the practice is known from the writings of Herodotus. The ancient Greek historian contended that the Scythians, who lived in what is today southern Russia for several centuries beginning in the 8th century B.C.E., drank from the skulls of their dead enemies. Skull cups also have been found at the 7000-year-old early farming site of Herxheim in Germany, as well as at two imprecisely dated Magdalenian sites in France. The Gough's Cave skulls, the authors say, are the earliest known directly dated examples.
As for why the Gough's Cave humans made the gruesome goblets, Bello and her colleagues say it is likely that they were used in some sort of ceremony. Although the breakage patterns of other human bones found at the site, such as the jaw bones, suggests that that they were broken open to get at the bone marrow—probably as part of cannibalistic practices—"there was a clear determination to preserve the cranial vault as completely as possible," Bello says. Thus, "it is likely that this was part of some symbolic ritual."
Bruno Boulestin, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, agrees with the team's interpretation. The arguments both for cannibalism and for deliberate crafting of skull cups are "absolutely convincing," Boulestin says. He thinks that the skulls were likely those of enemies rather than friends or relatives, because in "nine out of 10" societies known from historical or ethnographic records, skulls were removed as trophies for the purpose of humiliating an enemy.
As for exactly what was put into the cups, Boulestin says they might have been used for drinking some sort of beverage. But given the risk that liquid would leak out through the skull's sutures, he says, it was equally possible that these macabre containers were used to "offer up a serving of brains."