Who were the Ancient Irish Cannibals?
In the historical and geographical accounts of the classical authors we find various accounts of cannibalism and burial customs from Ireland, Britain and from the Baltic regions that are so surprisingly congruent that it stretches the bounds of coincidence. This article will examine these customs and their likely origins; and compares them to the known evidence of burial practices stretching from the proto-Pictish era back to the Neolithic. The parallels would suggest a very ancient link between Baltic seafarers and the people of northern Britain.
Perhaps that heading should be the ‘British and Irish Cannibals’, but such title does not flow so easily. It begins with the Roman author Strabo (7 BC), who in his geographies compares the man-eaters who dwell on the island of Ierne with the similar customs of the ‘Scythians’ living on the Baltic shores.  Diodorus Siculus (50 BC) had earlier described these same people living on the borders of the Scythians, saying:
“and some of these, we are told, eat human beings, even as the Britons do who dwell on the island of Iris…”. 
Now this confusion in describing Britons and Irish, we may perhaps excuse of an ancient author. However, the unique similarity in the customs between Ireland and the Baltic region was, as we shall see below, very real.
Other classical historians also describe these Scythian ‘Anthropophagi’ as a people who lived on the Baltic coast beyond the Germans. Earlier, Herodotus (450 BC) had described the ‘Androphagi’ as a distinct race subject to the Scythians and the only tribe in that region to eat human flesh – but then he confounds this by also describing a cannibal practice among another people called the Issedones!  One must conclude that his Androphagi and Issedones were in fact the same people – but his two descriptions originate from different sources. Pliny (AD 40) also knew of ‘Anthropophagi’ and ’Essedones’ in what we would now call the Baltic States and Russia – but at that era this entire vast region was simply known as ‘Scythia’. 
From the fragmentary descriptions given by the ancient writers, the ‘man-eating’ practice seems to have been more of a ritual than an act of savagery. Solinus (AD 250) gives us more information on the cannibal practices of these Anthropophagi, associating it with a burial rite; as is here described in the somewhat amusing Elizabethan-English translation made by Arthur Golding in 1587. 
“…It is the manner of the Essedons to follow the corpes of theyr parents singing and...to teare the carcasses a sunder with their teeth, and dressing them with other flesh of beastes to make a feast with them. The skulls of them they bind about with golde, and use them as mazers to drinke in…”
Pomponius Mela (AD 40) gives us a very similar account of this ritual, but whether flesh-eating occurred in other more barbarous contexts is not attested.  Pliny adds the additional detail of them drinking out of the skulls and also using the scalp hair as a napkin! However, he does not associate this with funeral customs. 
Both Strabo and Diodorus considered the customs of the Irish-Britons and ‘Scythians’ to be equivalent, Strabo indeed saying of the Irish: “they count it an honourable thing when their fathers die, to devour them…”  It seems unlikely that such unique funerary customs could evolve independently to be so similar in two such distant regions. Strabo also describes the Irish-Britons as following communal social customs involving the sharing of wives between family members. 
Other ancient writers also describe tribes (plural) in the interior of Britain who claimed to be aboriginal to the island and who similarly followed this custom of polygamous marriage.  The best known of these is the summary in Caesar’s commentaries; and Diodorus Siculus also tells us of autochthonous tribes in the interior of Britain who preserved ancient ways. 
Move forward now to the late Roman Empire and its battles with Picts and Scots who tried to break into the British province during the reign of Theodosius. Here we encounter another tribal name for the first time. Ammianus Marcellinus, probably referring to events in AD 368, describes Picts, Attacotti and Scots as devastating Britain unchecked:
“…the Picts divided into two tribes, called Dicalydones and Verturiones, as well as Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots, were ranging widely…” 
We see above that these Attacotti are not regarded as Picts from the mainland; and are not Scots either! The Scotti at this era must be regarded as a wholly Irish race. Celtic linguists assess the name: ‘Attacotti’ to mean: ‘very old ones’ or aborigines.  We do not hear of the Attacotti in the earlier Roman wars with Caledonians and Picts. Perhaps they are hiding under some other name in Ptolemy’s list; or they may have lived beyond the Mounth along the west coast and islands, undisturbed by the Romans as they campaigned up the east coast.
Some very unsavoury practices of this same tribe are also mentioned by St Jerome, who describes Atticoti serving in the Roman army of Gaul as: “a British tribe who eat human flesh”.  He goes on to describe their free social customs: “like Scots and Atticoti… (they) allow their brides to be promiscuous and live…in communes…”  Now these free social customs are comparable again to those described by Julius Caesar and the other writers as characteristic of aboriginal people in the interior; and this probably refers to more than one isolated tribe in remoter parts of Britain and Ireland (see: Stonehenge Builders DNA).
The assemblage of evidence suggests that we are here looking at an indigenous tribe living in western Scotland and the islands, who had preserved their ancient ways. They would later be absorbed into the kingdoms of the invading Picts, then by the Scots and Vikings; and the ancient customs must surely have been eradicated on Christian conversion. Solinus writing around AD 250 (with additions by later interpolators) predates the earliest mention of the name Attacotti; but he also attributes free social relations to the inhabitants of the Hebrides [Ebudes] and Thule [here probably Lewis] but somewhat frustratingly he does not mention any form of cannibalism! However, as we have seen above Solinus does describe the practice among the Scythian Anthropophagi, which other writers assure us was the same as that of the ‘Britons’ living in Ireland! Yes, if you are not thoroughly confused by now then you have not understood the situation! Unfortunately we do not have the ultimate source that these later historians are citing; probably it goes back to the lost Celtic History of Poseidonius of Rhodes, who may have visited Britain in the early first century BC.  The table below may help to illustrate the correspondences.
The Picts own traditions would also bring them over from Baltic Scythia as invaders at some time during the first millennium BC; and say that they took Irish wives.  They must have encountered indigenous people who (by definition) had been there since the Mesolithic and whose ancestors built the stone tombs and other monuments in Orkney and the Hebrides. In the timeless narrative of the Irish Book of Invasions, we are told of the earliest Irish colonists and their battles with ‘Fomorii’, who are described as “men out of Scythia and the western isles”; another coincidence?
Now that DNA evidence has shattered the long-standing dogma about an Iron Age Celtic invasion of Britain we are no longer constrained to find Celts behind every ancient bush! The Picts and the Attacotti were not in any sense ‘Celts’; that term should now be used with more caution to describe a linguistic grouping – unless we wish to talk about the Celtic Church or later cultural influences from Ireland.
We find another name in some later Welsh sources: Gwydll Ffichti (‘Irish Picts’).  On Ptolemy’s map (c.120 AD) we find in western Scotland: ‘Creones’, which would be pronounced similar to Cruithne: the Irish name for the Picts.  These Creones may give us another glimpse of the Attacotti: who as invading Picts living in Ireland had converted to Gaelic language and later brought it into northern Britain.
Now that we are no longer obligated to regard the Pictish language as p-Celtic then the question is open again for scrutiny. In Picts and Ancient Britons I made the case that the Picts came from Baltic Scythia, which was after all their own tradition, ignored for so long by Celtic scholars; and that they bought with them a Finnic language. It may be that contact between northern Britain and the Baltic goes back a very long way, even as far back as the Mesolithic when the route was open via the North Sea land bridge. This is an inevitable consequence if we regard the Attacotti as an aboriginal group – that is what aboriginal implies.
To find the origins of the cannibalism and the free social customs of ancient Britain and Ireland then we must look further back into what we know of the Neolithic. DNA evidence now tells us that there was an influx of invaders from the southern Steppes into southern Britain (the ‘beaker people’) during the Late Neolithic. This population replaced the earlier farmers and their culture during the Stonehenge era of the third millennium BC. (see: Stonehenge Builders' DNA) We must regard the arrival of the northern Picts as a much later incursion around the era of the broch-builders. As for the aboriginal Britons, it is clear that much of their way of life survived in isolated pockets of the older culture. We should perhaps regard the population replacement as analogous to the late Roman Empire when barbarians from the east broke in, not so much to destroy the culture as to become a part of it; but eventually they overwhelmed the older population.
An interesting facet of this Late Neolithic incursion is the revolution in burial monument style. These changed from the long-barrows and court tombs towards high-status burials in single barrows. Perhaps we should examine what we know of these Neolithic burial customs from the archaeology.
All around Britain and Ireland are found the dolmens of an older culture dating from the Early and Middle Neolithic. In Scotland and the north of Ireland we find the Court Cairns: stone-covered chambers with a crescentic forecourt. Further south in Britain we find instead the dolmens or ‘cromlechs’ similar to those of Brittany and Iberia. These were built of larger megalithic stones, formerly covered by a mound but lacking the forecourt; and in southern Britain we find the earthen long mounds such as Wayland’s Smithy and West Kennet. All these structures likely performed a similar function as community ritual sites (churches or crypts?) rather than as tombs.
Intact skeletons are virtually unknown from the early Neolithic period and preservation does not seem to have been important. Excavators report evidence of the scattering of human as well as animal bones in the area around the cairns; as if unwanted older bones were routinely disposed-of to make space for the new arrivals. A helpful summary of the changing burial styles may be found here at the Spoilheap website.
Archaeologists also report that the skulls are ‘under-represented’ among the disarticulated remains found at these sites. To give perhaps a typical example from southern England one may consider the nineteenth century excavation of the West Kennet long barrow in Wiltshire, which showed that it too once possessed a crescentic forecourt typical of the Scottish and Irish styles. When the mound was first excavated in 1859 the jumbled bones of around 46 individuals were found.
We must set aside our natural disgust at the notion of cannibalism and consider that to these descendents of early North-Europeans it was a normal part of their nurture. It may be that the ritual devouring of the deceased parent (or perhaps just of the father) and the retention of selected bones as relics, was a form of ancestor reverence. By consuming some small piece of the body the parent literally became a part of the child; and it seems that the adornment of the skull as a drinking vessel was also part of a ritual rather than pure barbarism.
We may visualise that in the forecourt of the ancient dolmen, the cannibalistic ceremony took place as it is described, with the body ritually torn and bitten by the assembled extended family; and the meats of parent and other beasts being ritually mixed and cooked over a fire. The body itself was not cremated, but left in the open dolmen-crypt. After a prescribed interval, the bones, particularly the skull, might be retrieved and retained by the family as a relic of the revered ancestor who would therefore always be with them. We see this for example in the West Kennet long barrow, which was only sealed in the Late Neolithic when the people of the earlier Neolithic had retreated to the western margins of Britain. We must await more evidence from archaeology as to exactly what happened to the aboriginal people of southern Britain, be it natural catastrophe, disease or genocide; perhaps a succession of all these things. The descendents of these earliest people, we now know from DNA, are still with us today; in the west of Scotland, North Wales and Yorkshire; perhaps in the north of Ireland too.
It is only by putting together a cross-disciplinary picture that we may perceive this view of the ancient society – one cannot find it solely from archaeology or the accounts of any individual classical writer. By putting together the overlapping historical references to ritual cannibalism and communal social structure, with the DNA and the archaeology, then we may perhaps experience an ‘aha’ moment. So that’s what they were doing!
Longer extracts of all the literary sources are given in Picts and Ancient Britons.
1. Strabo Geography IV, 5, 4
2. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, V, 31, 2-3
3. Herodotus, Histories, III and IV, various references
4. Pliny, Natural History, IV, xii, 88
5. Solinus, Collecteanea Rerum Memorabilium, additamenta, 15, 13 and 22 (11-17)
6. Pomponius Mela, De Chorographia, II, 8-10
7. Pliny, Natural History, IV, xii, 81
8. Strabo, Geography, IV, 5, 4
10. Julius Caesar, The Gallic War, V, 12 and V, 14
11. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, V, 21, 5
12. Ammianus Marcellinus, Library of History XXVII, 7, 8 and 8, 5
13. Rivett, A.L.F. and Smith, C., The Place Names of Roman Britain, Batsford, London (1979)
14. St Jerome, Against Jovinian, 2, 7
15. St Jerome, Epistola, 69
16. Inferred from a remark by Strabo in: Geography, 2, 4, 2
17. Principally Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 1, 1 – but others have the same story.
18. Triads of Arthur, 36
19. Ptolemy, Geography, C, Liii
Tags: Picts, Scotti, Attacotti, Atecoti, Atticoti, cannibalism, Cruithni, Court Cairn, dolmen, Neolithic burial, anthropophagi, Androphagi, Issedones, West Kennet, long barrow, skull-drinking, Scythian, Strabo, Saint Jerome, Solinus
Citation: Dunbavin, Paul, (2020) Who were the Ancient Irish Cannibals? Prehistory Papers, pp 170-177, Third Millennium, ISBN: 978-0-9525029-4-4
Copyright: Paul Dunbavin and Third Millennium Publishing - Aug 2019 updated Feb 2022 v 1.4