Cannibals used to freely roam Britain performing rituals in caves over 13,000 years ago, according to ground-breaking new research.

Scientists have made a fascinating breakthrough using DNA from ancient skeletal remains which suggest that two distinct groups of people made what we now know as the UK, their home.

One of those groups dined out on human flesh and made cups out of human skulls in Gough’s Cave, Somerset, but the other based in present day Wales left behind no such evidence of savagery.

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The chilling bombshell has been revealed by analysis of the UK’s oldest human DNA belonging to a female found at Gough’s Cave, and a male from Kendrick’s Cave in North Wales, who both lived more than 13,500 years ago.

Very few skeletons of that age exist in Britain, with around a dozen found across six sites in total.

The pioneering research, which involved radiocarbon dating and analysis as well as DNA extraction and sequencing, has shown that it is possible to obtain useful genetic information from some of the oldest human skeletal material in the country.

The study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, was conducted by scientists from University College London's Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum and the Francis Crick Institute in London.

They explained that the genome sequences now represent the earliest chapter of the genetic history of Britain – but ancient DNA and proteins promise to take us back even further into human history.

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The team said that DNA from the Gough’s Cave female, who died about 15,000 years ago, indicates that her ancestors were part of an initial migration into north west Europe around 16,000 years ago.

However, the individual from Kendrick’s Cave is from a later period, around 13,500 years ago, with his ancestry from a western hunter-gatherer group.

The researchers say that group’s ancestral origins are thought to be from the near East, migrating to Britain around 14,000 years ago.

Study co-author Dr Mateja Hajdinjak, of the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Finding the two ancestries so close in time in Britain, only a millennium or so apart, is adding to the emerging picture of Palaeolithic Europe, which is one of a changing and dynamic population.”

As well as genetically, the team said that the two groups were found to be "culturally distinct" – with differences in what they ate and how they buried their dead.

Co-author Dr Rhiannon Stevens, of UCL's Institute of Archaeology, said: “Chemical analyses of the bones showed that the individuals from Kendrick’s Cave ate a lot of marine and freshwater foods, including large marine mammals.

“Humans at Gough’s Cave, however, showed no evidence of eating marine and freshwater foods, and primarily ate terrestrial herbivores such as red deer, bovids – such as wild cattle called aurochs – and horses.”

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The research team also discovered that the mortuary practices of the two groups also differed. Although there were animal bones found at Kendrick’s Cave, those included portable art items, such as a decorated horse jawbone.

No animal bones were found that showed evidence of being eaten by humans, and the scientists say that indicates the cave was used as a burial site by its occupiers.

In contrast, animal and human bones found in Gough’s Cave showed "significant" human modification, including human skulls modified into "skull-cups" – which the researchers believe to be evidence for ritualistic cannibalism.

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