© Natural History Museum of LondonA skull-cup found in Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England.

The three human braincases, two from adults and one from a child, were carefully skinned and cleaned with flint tools. The soft tissue was removed and probably consumed, leaving a well-shaped cup, perhaps made for use in some sort of ritual.

This is not a scene from a horror movie. British paleoanthropologists report their discovery of these skull-cups in the current issue of the journal PLoS One. The 14,700-year-old cups were found in Gough's Cave in Somerset, England, and are the oldest directly dated skull-cups known, based on radiocarbon analysis.

"It shows, really, how skilled these people were in shaping the skull, and also the fact that it was a very complex ritual," said Silvia Bello, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and the study's lead author.

Historical accounts have previously revealed that other human societies, like the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European warrior community, used skull-cups to sip the blood of their enemies. And as late as the 19th century, skull-cups were reportedly used in Fiji and other islands in Oceania.

But archaeological evidence of skull-cups has been rare. The oldest known specimens date to the Upper Paleolithic period in Western Europe, 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, although none of those artifacts were directly dated.

"But what we see here in Gough's Cave is very different from other cases, where maybe you killed the enemy and took the skull as the trophy," Dr. Bello said. "This seems more of a ritual, perhaps a funeral ritual."

A cast of one of the skull-cups will be on display at the Natural History Museum in London for three months, starting March 1.