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Cliffside tombs of the Tana Toraja

Five incredible funerary practices from the ancient world

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. 

The Rambu Soloq begins when funeral visitors attend a buffalo-slaughtering field. Family members are required to slaughter buffaloes as they believe that the spirit of the deceased will live peacefully thereafter, continuing to herd the buffaloes that have come to join him or her. On the eleventh day of festivities, the body is placed in a cave high up on a cliff. A wood-carved effigy called tau tau, carved with the likeness of the dead person is placed in the balcony of the tomb to represent the dead and watch over their remains.  Every year in August, a ritual called Ma’Nene (The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses) takes place in which the bodies of the deceased are exhumed to be washed, groomed and dressed in new clothes. The mummies are then walked around the village by following a path of straight lines.  According to the myth, these lines are connected with Hyang, a spiritual entity with supernatural power.

Turning of the bones and the Madagascar dance with the dead

Madagascar dance

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have built a way of life around death – during the dry winter months, famadihana ceremonies, known as “the turning of the bones”, take place around various towns and villages to commemorate the deceased. Once every two to seven years, each family holds a huge celebration at their ancestral crypt where the remains of the dead are exhumed, wrapped in fine silk, sprayed with wine or perfume, and brought out for community festivities. In the Malagasy culture, the turning of the bones is a vital element in maintaining links with revered ancestors, who still play a very real role in daily life. The custom is based upon a belief that the spirits of the dead do not join the superior world of the ancestors until after the body has decomposed completely, and until that time, the spirit of the deceased still lingers and is able to communicate with the living.  Until they are gone forever, the festivities of famadihana are a way to shower love and affection upon them.

The ‘Frankenstein’ mummies of Scotland

In 2001, a team of archaeologists found four skeletons at an archaeological site on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. At first, it appeared to be a typical Bronze Age discovery, but the researchers soon discovered that the finding was far from normal. Genetic analysis of the remains led to the startling discovery that the two skeletons were actually made up of body parts from six different individuals. In one skeleton, the torso, skull and neck, and lower jaw belonged to three separate men, and another skeleton was found to be a composite formed from a male skull, a female torso, and the arm of a third person whose gender had not been determined. Carbon dating revealed that the skull of the ‘female’ mummy is 50 to 200 years older than the torso. It appears that the mummies were made up of parts from people in the same families and then put together like a jigsaw to make it look like they were just one person. Archaeologists have no idea why the remains were mummified and then mixed together. However, one hypothesis is that the mixing of remains was done to combine different ancestries of families to create a ‘symbolic ancestor’ that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages. However, Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, is more cynical and believes that the Bronze Age people of South Uist were just practical: "Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on."

Featured image: The Cliffside tombs of the Tana Toraja

By April Holloway

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