Making skull cups: Butchering traces on cannibalised human skulls from five European archaeological sites

Publication date: February 2020

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 114

Author(s): Francesc Marginedas, Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, Maria Soto, Silvia M. Bello, Isabel Cáceres, Rosa Huguet, Palmira Saladié


The presence of skull cups (bowls made from human calvaria) is considered evidence of the ritualistic treatment of human bodies. These artefacts are characterised by careful manufacturing which can be taphonomically observed in bone surface modifications (BSM) as cut marks and percussion marks. These BSM show morphological similarities across Upper Palaeolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age assemblages. This study is focused on the analysis of the frequency and spatial distribution of cut marks on skull cups from Gough’s Cave (UK), Herxheim (Germany), and El Mirador Cave (Spain), as compared to the frequency and spatial distribution of modifications on human skulls (non-skull cups) from TD6.2 of Gran Dolina (Spain) and Fontbrégoua (France), with the aim of identifying a common pattern related to a symbolic background. Nearest neighbour analysis and Kernel analyses were used to identify the distribution pattern of anthropogenically induced modifications. The results indicate that the frequency and distribution of cut marks on human skulls modified into skull cups are unique and are most likely to be the result of meticulous cleaning of skulls. A similar frequency and distribution pattern of modifications was also observed on skulls from Fontbrégoua, possibly related to the collection of skulls as war trophies. No parallels with the treatment of skulls of Homo antecessor at TD6.2 of Gran Dolina were observed. We suggest that the treatment of human skulls for ritualistic purposes therefore results in a consistent pattern of modification.