- Associated Press - Thursday, February 17, 2011

LONDON (AP) - British scientists said they have uncovered three human skulls that ice-age Britons used as drinking cups.

The 14,700-year-old skeletal remains found in a cave in southwest England were fashioned in such a meticulous way that their use as bowls to hold liquid seems the only reasonable explanation, scientists from London’s Natural History Museum said in a study published Wednesday.

The practice of using human skulls as containers has been well documented. But the three skull-cups _ from two adults and a child _ are believed to be the oldest directly-dated examples of their kind and the only known from the British Isles, scientists said.

“It is likely that this was part of some symbolic ritual and not mere necessity,” said Silvia Bello, lead author of the study published in PLos One. She noted that the artifacts demonstrate how skilled early humans were at the manipulation of human bodies.

Although the team found evidence that some of the flesh and bone marrow from the skulls was eaten, they concluded that cannibalism was unlikely to have been the main purpose of the modifications.

The distribution of cut marks seen on the skulls indicates that they were scrupulously “cleaned” of any soft tissues, and subsequently modified by the removal of the facial region. The skulls were then meticulously shaped into cups by retouching the broken edges, demonstrating how skilled early humans were at the manipulation of human bodies, Bello said.

“All in all it was a very painstaking process given the tools available,” she added.

The three skulls aren’t the first historic clues found in Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England. In 1903, the complete skeleton of a man dated to about 10,000 years ago was found at the same site.

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