Archaeologist finds defleshed human bones in ancient religious complex in Bolivia
Archaeologists investigating a religious complex in Bolivia have discovered an ancient mortuary where human body parts were boiled, stripped of their flesh, and cleaned. Experts believe the practice was carried out to enable the remains of the deceased to be easier to transport making them what archeologist Scott C. Smith calls “portable ancestors”.
According to a new study published in the journal Antiquity, the finding was made at the ancient archaeological site of Khonkho Wankane (Qhunqhu Wankani), a ceremonial center in the southern Lake Titicaca Basin, 28km (18 miles) south of Tiwanku, which was active during the Late Formative Period (100 BC – 500 AD), preceding the rise of Tiwanaku, the capital of an empire that extended into present-day Peru and Chile, and home to one of the most important civilizations prior to the Inca.
Researchers John W. Janusek, Arik T. Ohnstad & Andrew P. Roddick, report in their article ‘Khonkho Wankane and the Rise of Tiwanaku’ that the site consists of domestic structures made with cut stone and clear entrance blocks, situated around an open patio enclosed by a large compound wall. Adjacent to this is an extensive plaza measuring 50 m x 54 m (164 x 177 ft), the largest yet known for the region, and three nearby temples. Lying around the site were several red sandstone monoliths, each over five metres high, three of which still bear elaborate iconography, including depictions of anthropomorphic figures, zoomorphic beings with serpentine bodies, and deities, which may have actually been local ancestors, a focus of religious ideologies in Andean communities.
Left to right: View of a section of the residential compound, View of the interior wall of the main sunken temple, relief carvings on red sandstone monolith. Credit: J. W. Janusek, A. T. Ohnstad, and A. P. Roddick.
Scott C. Smith, who is an archaeologist at Franklin & Marshall College, has been carrying out excavations at the site for a decade, but was not expecting to unearth anything particularly unique in the patch of earth they started digging in. But Smith, and his colleague, Maribel Pérez Arias of the University of Pittsburgh, made a unique and important finding – a circular building whose floor was covered with nearly 1,000 teeth and small bones, mostly from the feet and hands, ceramics, and tools made from llama bones. All were coated in a thin layer of white plaster and nearby they found blocks of a white, chalky quicklime. Outside the area, carvings on a stone pillar depict a human with defleshed ribs.
Left: Newly discovered circular building believed to be an ancient mortuary. (Photo: Scott C. Smith)
“A quicklime-water blend has a notable property: It can help remove the tissue and fat from bones,” writes USA Today. “Exposed to air, the mixture turns into a white plaster.”
Taken together, the findings suggest that the circular building was an ancient mortuary, where human corpses were boiled in pots of quicklime to strip flesh off the bones. The larger bones were then removed from the site, leaving behind just the smaller bones, such as those found in the hands and feet.
The process created "portable ancestors for a mobile population," said study co-author Scott C. Smith. The discovery suggests that the dead played an important role in the lives of the living, and were even taken out of their tombs for rituals.
“The end product of that grisly work: relics that could easily be carried on the road by people who lived in the region more than a thousand years ago and seem to have had both a reverence for the dead and a highly unsettled lifestyle,” writes USA Today. “The people who stopped at Khonkho were itinerant llama drovers whose way of life made it impossible for them to live close to burial sites. The evidence suggests they took their dead on the road instead.”
Featured image: Newly-discovered bones found in an ancient mortuary in Bolivia (Photo: Scott C. Smith)