|12 February 2005
Discovering Cheddar's cannibals
Grisly exhibits including human bones butchered by cavemen thousands of years ago are on display at Cheddar Caves' new museum of cannibalism. A giant skull demonstrating how human heads were carved up is also displayed in the exhibition, thought to be the first of its kind in the UK.
Evidence of an unsavoury cannibal past was found during the 1980s when 12,500year-old human bones were unearthed at Gough's Cave, in Cheddar's famous gorge (Somerset, England). Primitive knives had been used to break open skulls to allow eyeballs and brains to be removed and eaten, while bones had been smashed to remove the marrow. Animal remains butchered in the same way were found nearby, making the Somerset cave Britain's first authenticated cannibal site.
Bob Smart, the museum's curator, accepted that the eye-watering new feature would not be to every visitor's taste. "This isn't a traditional museum experience," he said. "Some of the exhibits may not be for the faint-hearted. Parts of the exhibition may be hard to stomach but it is rooted in academic research. One theory is that the Cheddar cannibalism was carried out after victory in battle, rather than simply to keep cave dwellers alive.
Much of the cannibal museum's background material is based on the work of Dr Timothy Taylor, reader in archaeology at the University of Bradford. "It is quite clear that the edibility of human beings has led in a systematic way to their being eaten on every continent in nearly every period of human existence," said Dr Taylor. "At Gough's Cave the human bones interpreted as cannibalised appear among an assemblage of hunted wild fauna, and display a pattern consistent with butchery for meat, including the removal of tongues. The evidence can perhaps best be interpreted as warfare cannibalism, but cannibalism should not be ruled out as a response to hardship years."
Gough's Cave was also the last resting place of Cheddar Man, Britain's oldest complete skeleton, which is 9,000 years old and was found in 1903. He escaped being cannibalised, possibly because Stone Age society had moved away from eating human flesh. Exhibits include a replica of Cheddar Man's skeleton, complete with scenes showing how the caveman was buried and later rediscovered. Another exhibit puts flesh on Cheddar Man's bones and shows how he may have looked.
Source: Western Daily Press (11 February 2005)
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