In Their Cups

Deep in deepest Somerset in Southwest England lies Cheddar Gorge slicing through the escarpment of the Mendip Hills. A wild and wooly countryside in days gone by with sheep wandering around, and the people either mining lead or drinking a strong form of cider. Neither occupation was good for brain health in the long term. At the entrance the Gorge, lies the village of Cheddar of cheese fame with a large cave, Gough’s Cave as its main attraction. For the gourmets, the local farmhouse Cheddar Cheese is streets ahead of the processed plastic cubes in most grocery stores.

Mr. Gough opened up his cave to tourists quite a while ago as it had some nice example of stalactites and stalagmites to tempt them inside. Sad to say, but they are now a little past their best. His discovery of a human skeleton in 1903 spawned a Caveman Museum. The bones have been shown to be more than 10,000 years old. I recall, but unfortunately can’t trace the reference, that a DNA profile was compared with that of a sample of the local inhabitants in a study to see, well I’m not sure quite what but the grant money needed spending. There was only one near match and that was with a local schoolmaster. This was about twenty years ago and without a reference, can only be an anecdotal story and my memory may have been colored by talking to his pupils.

A recent study of old bones at this site by Bello et al (1) was published yesterday and described three cups fashioned from human skulls dating back almost 15,000 years. These are the oldest on record and the only ones in the UK. These cups were carefully made and would hold about a pint. There is no record of what thirst quenching libation was available. The other bones examined had been cracked open for the marrow, showing that long pig had been on the menu in addition to wild boar. It would be interesting to know if the development of pottery paralleled the idea that eating your neighbors was not a good method of settling civil disputes. I will be recognizing my bone china teacups as an important aid to civilization from this date. My pink finger is twitching!


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