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Ancient Britons Used Skulls as Cups

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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.

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