Cheddar Gorge in Somerset’s Mendip Hills is one of Britain’s most beautiful natural wonders, with its sweeping limestone cliffs, and striking natural rock chambers.
But new evidence suggests the picturesque site had a deeply sinister past.
Paleontologists have discovered that around 15,000 years ago, British cave dwellers filleted and ate their dead relatives before inscribing markings on their bones in grisly prehistoric rituals.
It is the first time that such practices have been found in the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age – which dates from 2.6 million years ago to around 12,000BC – anywhere in the world.
Scientists from the Natural History Museum in London and University College London (UCL) compared hundreds of cut-marks found on both human and animal bones at Gough’s Cave, one of the Gorge’s most impressive caverns.
They discovered that one human bone had been disarticulated, filleted, chewed and then marked with a zig-zag design, before it was finally broken to extract the bone marrow.
Researchers ruled out that the marks were made during the butchery process because they were found on a part of the bone with no muscle attachments.
They concluded that the ‘zig-zagging incisions are undoubtedly engraving marks, produced with no utilitarian purpose but purely for artistic or symbolic representation.’
The scientists speculate that the marks may have represented the ‘story’ of the victim’s life or a memorial to how they died. Whichever, they agree it must have been part of a ritual or ceremony to mark the person’s passing, like modern day funerary rites.
Silvia Bello, Calleva Researcher at the Natural History Museum, says: “The engraved motif on the Gough’s Cave bone is similar to engravings observed in other Magdalenian European sites.
“However, what is exceptional in this case is the choice of human bone and the cannibalistic context in which it was produced.
“The sequence of modifications performed on this bone suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations.
“Although in previous analyses we have been able to suggest that cannibalism at Gough’s Cave was practiced as a symbolic ritual, this study provides the strongest evidence for this yet.”
Gough’s Cave was first discovered in the 1880s and frequent excavations at the site have found evidence that humans lived there for thousands of years, including ‘Cheddar Man’, Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, which dates from 7,150BC.
DNA taken from the skeleton was been found to match that of Adrian Targett, a man living in the local area today.