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A set of skulls found buried in a stone cist inside a prehistoric house at Shkārat Msaied in Jordan.

9,000-Year-Old Skeletons Found in Jordan had been Dismembered, Sorted, and Buried in Homes

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Archaeologists have made an unusual discovery in a prehistoric village in Jordan – the skeletal remains of more than 70 people that had been allowed to decay and then dismembered. After this, their bones were sorted by type, and the collections were buried in stone cists inside houses. Researchers have suggested the practice may have been based on a belief about keeping the dead and their spirits among the living.

Haaretz reports that the discovery was made at Shkārat Msaied, a 9,000-year-old village in a valley just north of Petra, by a team of archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen.

“This well-preserved site is of archaeological and historical importance as it was inhabited in a period marked by crucial developments in subsistence strategies as people began to experiment with cultivation of plants and herding of animals,” reports the Shkarat Msaied Neolithic Project .  “The semi-arid landscape on which the Shkarat Msaied site is situated was mainly occupied by mobile hunter-gatherer groups, living in circular shaped buildings of more substantial character than previous and with a rich and diverse material culture.”

The people who lived in Shkārat Msaied 9,000 years ago built large round stone houses, inside which they buried their dead. Credit: Moritz Kinsel, Shkārat Msaied Neolithic Project, University of Copenhagen.

The people who lived in Shkārat Msaied 9,000 years ago built large round stone houses, inside which they buried their dead. Credit: Moritz Kinsel, Shkārat Msaied Neolithic Project, University of Copenhagen.

According to National Geographic , archaeologists found around 15 mass graves, 10 of which have been excavated to date. The graves contained bones that had been mostly sorted by type – for example, skulls in one grave and leg bones in another – belonging to men, women, and children.

An analysis of the remains suggests that the bodies had been allowed to fully decompose before being dismembered, sorted, and buried in stone cists within the houses.

"We do not know yet if the buried ones are relatives, or how they were singled out to be buried here," Dr. Moritz Kinzel, excavation leader and researcher from the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen told Haaretz. "It also seems that the dead bodies were in various stages of decay when they were buried at Shkārat Msaied. This could be an indicator that the people had not necessarily died in the settlement and were just brought here to be buried, to become part of the community.”

The remains of multiple individuals were buried together inside the home. Credit: Moritz Kinsel, Shkārat Msaied Neolithic Project, University of Copenhagen.

The remains of multiple individuals were buried together inside the home. Credit: Moritz Kinsel, Shkārat Msaied Neolithic Project, University of Copenhagen.

Although the reasons behind the burial practice will never be known with certainty, Physical Anthropologist Marie Louise Jørkov from the University of Copenhagen told Haaretz that burying the dead inside the house suggests the living wanted to be close to their dead, or let the spirits of the dead "share" in their everyday life.  Kinzel added that the separation of body parts may have been to ensure the dead could not return and cause havoc.

Interestingly, the practice of allowing bodies to decay before cleaning and sorting the bones is a tradition seen in many ancient cultures across the world, which sometimes included the process of defleshing.

Last year, archaeologists in Bolivia found an ancient mortuary, dating back around 2,000 years, where human bodies had been boiled, stripped of their flesh, and cleaned. Researchers found white, chalky quicklime, which was most likely used to strip tissue and fat from bones.  A white powdery substance was also found in sink-like structures in all the homes at Shkarat Msaied, although the researchers have not yet identified what it is.

Similar practices have also been found in a Neolithic village in Turkey, a 7,500-year-old Stone Age site in Italy, and a 9,000-year-old burial in the Philippines.

Featured image: A set of skulls found buried in a stone cist inside a prehistoric house at Shkārat Msaied in Jordan. Credit: Moritz Kinsel, Shkārat Msaied Neolithic Project, University of Copenhagen.

By April Holloway

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