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Sipping From a Skull

Archaeologists may have found the earliest examples of human skull cups

Skull cups from Gough's Cave. Image courtesy of PLoS One.

A bone china service is a trophy for the sideboard, symbolizing the best of the best for formal entertaining in all its pinky-raising glory. The fine porcelain, with ground animal bones in the material, is prized for its strength as well as its delicacy. But there was a point in our species’ history when niceties were more or less dispensed with and human bones were deemed fit for use as serving ware. The practice is well documented in ethnographic studies and historical accounts; the Scythians, Vikings and ancient Chinese were among the cultures that practiced using skulls for bowls or drinking vessels. Archaeological evidence, on the other hand, is rare. In a new study, archaeologists and paleontologists examined remains dating some 16,600 years ago—during the upper Paleolithic era—and think they may have found the earliest examples of human skull cups.

The remains evaluated in the study hail from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England and represent at least five humans, including three adults and a child. The clustered cutting marks indicate that these craniums were expertly processed post-mortem. Shortly after death and once rigor mortis had set in, the heads were detached from the body. The head was then scalped, likely with flint tools; facial tissues and bones were removed and jagged edges were chipped and flaked until smooth. But the tipoff that these remains were used for containers is the completeness of the cranial vaults—the rounded part of your skull that protects your brain. Compared to the other, drastic modifications made to the skull, great care was taken to make sure that the vault remained intact. The case for presenting these pieces as skull cups is further bolstered by their similarities to confirmed examples.

Of course, one must remember Emily Post’s dictate regarding fine dining: “What must match is the quality of everything on the table. It would be incorrect, for example, to use heavy pottery salad plates with fine china dinner plates.” In short, a modified human cranium placed alongside your inherited set of Franciscan Desert Rose would smack of poor taste.

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