Cliffside tombs of the Tana Toraja

Five incredible funerary practices from the ancient world

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Evidence for burial rituals has been found dating back 100,000 years and since then numerous examples of funerary customs have been from the ancient world, from Egyptian mummification to bodies preserved in peat bogs, and departed Vikings launched out on ships-turned-crematoriums. In many cultures, the deceased were buried below ground and through time, mounds of earth, temples, cists, and underground caverns have been uncovered, shedding light on the customs of ancient people around the world. But many ancient funerary rites are still alive today among indigenous groups of people who have preserved their traditions over hundreds if not thousands of years. Here we examine five incredible funerary practices from the ancient world, some which are now lost to the pages of history, and others which are still practiced today.

The Sentinel Sarcophagi of the Warriors of the Clouds

The Sentinel Sarcophagi of the Warriors of the Clouds

In 1928, a powerful earthquake shook the hills surrounding the Utcubamba valley in Peru, revealing a seven foot tall clay statue, which came crashing down from the cliffside. Researchers were stunned to find that the figure was in fact a sarcophagus, and inside it were the remains of an individual carefully wrapped in cloth. Following this discovery, more of these sarcophagi were uncovered. They became known as the purunmachu, where the ‘Warriors of the Clouds’ placed their dead. The purunmachu sarcophagi were carefully prepared using clay which was built around the wrapped up body of the deceased. The structure was then covered in a mixture of mud and straw and painted white or cream before adding on details such as necklaces, feathered tunics, and faces, painted on in shades of yellow and red ochre. The sarcophagi were placed on a low circular wall on the ledge of a high cliff face and, lined up, the purunmachu were like a row of sentinels guarding the dead.

The Warriors of the Clouds, also known as the Chachapoya people, were a culture of Andean people living in the cloud forests of the Amazonas region of present day Peru. Archaeological evidence suggests that people began settling the region at least as early as 200 AD, but the Incas conquered their civilization shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Their incorporation into the Inca Empire led to the complete decimation of their culture and traditions, and less than a century after the arrival of the Spanish, they had been effectively wiped out. However, one thing remained behind as a monument of their existence – the purunmachu.

The ancient hanging coffins of Sichuan province

The hanging coffins of Sichuan province

On the mountain cliffs in Gongxian in Sichuan province, China, lies a peculiar sight –hundreds of ancient wooden coffins hanging precariously from the cliff face.  Some believe they were hung on cliffs to be within reach of the gods, while others theorise that it was to keep animals away from their dead. The hanging coffins of Sichuan were left behind by the Bo people, who are thought to have died out about 400 years ago, taking with them the secrets of their burial tradition. The Bo were an ethnic minority people living astride the borders of modern day Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. There they created a brilliant culture as early as 3,000 years ago. The Bo differed from other ethnic groups in their burial customs. Typically hewn from durable hardwood logs, their hanging coffins went unpainted but originally protected by a bronze cover.  Some believe the coffins must have been lowered down with ropes from the top of the mountain, or put in place using wooden stakes inserted into the cliff face to be used as artificial climbing aids. Others believe that scaling ladders or timber scaffolds were used. However, investigators have failed to find even a single stake hole. The practice of hanging coffins ended with the mysterious disappearance of the Bo people. Those who came after knew them from the unique traditions and burial artefacts they left behind like faint echoes on the cliffs.

The Toraja people and the most complex funeral rituals in the world

Tana Toraja

The Tana Toraja is a regency of South Sulawesi in Indonesia, a picturesque mountainous region that is home to an indigenous group known as the Torajans.  For the Toraja people, life very much revolves around death, but not in a morbid sense.  For them, a funeral is a great celebration of life. When a Torajan dies, family members are required to hold a series of funeral ceremonies, known as Rambu Soloq, over many days. Until this time, the deceased is embalmed and stored in a traditional house with his or her family.  During this phase, the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely asleep or suffering an illness. Remarkably, this period could even last several years after death, depending on how long it takes the family to raise money.  The body is symbolically fed, cared for and taken out, and is very much a part of their relative’s lives. 

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Ancient Technology

The four-handled tureen adorned with dragons, birds and spikes
Chinese archaeologists have discovered ritual tureen and “soup bowls” next to a badly decomposed body in a Zhou dynasty-era tomb. Among the remains there were also uncovered two wine vessels, which experts suggest were probably used as part of the funerary rituals.

Ancient Places

Healing Temple of Aesculapius (Asklepios) by Robert Thom
In the ancient world, many cultures built elaborate temple complexes dedicated to their healer gods - Imhotep in Egypt and Asklepios in Greece for example. These gods were recognized as having the power to cure supplicants from a variety of ailments within sleep and sacred dreams. Those who desired healing might travel many hundreds of miles to reach such a temple

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