| 2 April 2015
Neolithic Italian farmers defleshed their dead
About 7000 years ago in Italy, early farmers practiced a burial ritual known as defleshing. When people died, villagers stripped their bones bare, pulled them apart, and mingled them with animal remains in a nearby cave. The practice was meant to separate the dead from the living, researchers say.
"[Defleshing] is something which occurs in burial rites around the world but hasn't been known for prehistoric Europe yet," says John Robb, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge (England) and leader of the research project. Robb and his team examined the scattered bones of at least 22 Neolithic humans who died between 7200 and 7500 years ago. Their remains were buried in Scaloria Cave, a stalactite-filled grotto near Manfredonia (Apulia, Italy), where Robb says that they provide the "first well-documented case for early farmers in Europe of people trying to actively deflesh the dead."
Neolithic communities typically buried their dead beneath or beside their homes or on the outskirts of settlements. But in this case, farmers from villages as far as 15 to 20 kilometers away scattered the defleshed bones of their dead in the upper chamber of Scaloria Cave. The cave - sealed off until its discovery in 1931 - was uniquely able to preserve the human remains, which were mixed randomly with animal bones, broken pottery, and stone tools.
Robb's team performed detailed analyses of the skeletal remains, first excavated in 1978 and now at the University of Cambridge on loan from the Archeological National Museum in Manfredonia, and their context. The results showed that few whole skeletons were present in the cave - only select bones had been interred. Some of the bones had light cut marks, suggesting that only residual muscle tissue needed to be removed by the time of defleshing. That meant the remains were likely deposited as much as a year after death.
Robb and his team theorize that the defleshing process was part of a long, multistage burial. It isn't known what happened to the bodies in the early stages of these rites, though the lack of animal damage on the bones suggests that they weren't exposed to the elements, meaning that they were either sealed away or buried deep in the ground. What is clear is that the rites ended up to a year later, when select bones were cleaned of their remaining flesh and placed in the cave. This likely marked the end of the mourning process; relatives were then free to place the remains among other discarded items, animal bones, and broken vessels, perhaps as a symbolic gesture, showing that the transition from life to death was now complete.
But what was the significance of the cave? Robb and his team further hypothesize that due to the similarity in appearance, bones might have been regarded as equivalent to stalactites. Indeed, noticing the connection between water dripping from the cave ceiling and stalactite formation, the Neolithic Italians had placed vessels beneath the falling liquid to collect it; as the substance that created 'stone bones,' it likely had a spiritual power. It's thus possible, the team says, that the cleaning process and deposition in the cave was a way for the living to return the bones to their stonelike origins, both in appearance and location, completing a cycle of incarnation.
The team's comparison between long bones and stalactites is "extremely suggestive," says Mark Pearce, an archaeologist at the University of Nottingham (England), who was not involved in the study.
Edited from Science Magazine (27 March 2015)
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