First evidence of defleshing of human bones in Neolithic Europe found in Italy cave
Archaeologists studying a cave in southeast Italy with remains of people who died 7,500 years ago say they have identified the first known cases in New Stone Age Europe of people scraping the flesh off of people’s bones after death. The researchers ruled out cannibalism or other violence as a cause of death.
A February 2-15 article in the journal Antiquity details the cutting and scraping with stone tools of these incomplete skeletons in Scaloria Cave from 5500 to 5200 BC.
The article says humans have engaged in a great variety of behaviors to mark death.
Location of Scaloria Cave ( Antiquity)
Humans have invented an astonishing range of ways to transform the dead, from simple burial to exposure, cremation, secondary re-interment, mummification, ingestion by the living, curation and display as trophies, the creation of relics and objects of memory, or even destroying the body completely,
the article states.
The article says “death rituals can be about many things: advertising the status of the deceased, forging political relations, fending off the vengeful dead, and many other social tasks. A fundamental job, however, is to accomplish the social act of dying – to transform someone from a living being with one set of capabilities and social relations into a new entity with a new kind of existence, be it an active, socially present spirit or only a well-observed memory.”
A model of a skull from Scaloria Cave showing the distribution of cut marks, in black ( Antiquity)
Traces of the isotope strontium shows the bones of the 22 to 31 people studied, including juveniles, came from villages along a 15 to 20 km span (9.3 to 12.4 miles). The prehistoric people left the incomplete skeletons in the upper chamber of the cave, a small part of which was excavated in 1931, 1978 and 2013. Some of the bones the archaeologists examined had been in storage after the 1978 excavation.
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The researchers ruled out cannibalism and other violence and say it is not a cemetery that was disturbed later. It also was not a mass burial from one catastrophic event. About one-third to one-half of the commingled bones are of juveniles, suggesting a high death rate among youth.
Some of the bones came from complete bodies, but other limb bones and skulls may have been deposited selectively. Some bones came from farther away than 20 km.
A deposit of bones in the cave in an area 1.5 by 1.5 meters (5 feet by 5 feet) ( Antiquity)
The ancient people scraped the bones to remove residual soft tissue and to separate bones. Then they broke bones, many within the first year after death or possibly during de-fleshing. They scattered the cleaned bones on the cave floor mixed with broken pots, stone tools and animal remains.
The authors ponder what meaning the act of de-fleshing the bones had. They conclude the deceased people’s bodies were not simply disposed of as meaningless garbage. On the contrary, “the production of disorder was part of a highly structured, meaningful sequence of ritual actions” that left “ ‘pure’ bone … a new substance; in effect, it ritually decommissioned human bone and made it into a post-human object. Casually discarding the former remains of friends and relations, and mixing them with objects and perhaps even rubbish from daily life, confirmed this transformation, perhaps with a conscious, ceremonial sense of anti-ceremoniality.”
They wrote that secondary burial rites like those in Scaloria Cave reflect a period in which the dead are “liminal beings” in transition between life and death. Their spirits may have been thought as remaining nearby. The people accomplished the transformation of their loved ones from living beings to dead beings in stages, “and cleaning and discarding the bone was the last (detectable) stage. Final deposition could perhaps have signaled a termination of this period of liminality, the moment at which the deceased reached stability, no longer hovering and threatening at which the living could re-emerge from mourning.”
The authors speculate de-fleshing and casually discarding the bones may have been “the final termination of a prolonged, intimate interaction between living and dead: the end to mourning.”
The authors also found 40 ceramic vessels placed under cave stalactites to catch drippings. “If we suppose that stalactites were understood as equivalent to bones on a stone-like plane of existence, then cleaning bones and returning them to the stalactite-filled cave may have been understood as returning the bones to an eternal place where they came into being, the conclusion of a cycle of temporal incarnation. Conversely, the water that formed ‘stone bones’ in the cave and hence bones in the living may have been understood as spiritually powerful or nourishing.”
Featured image: In Scaloria Cave stalactites on the cave ceiling and at right a mixture of stalactite fragments and human bone fragments, found during 2013 excavations ( Antiquity)
By Mark Miller