Prehistoric Anatolians removed flesh from bones to ease transition to death
New research suggests that people in a Stone Age village in Turkey cut the flesh off the bones and skulls of several people who were dying or had just died then painted and/or plastered the bones and buried them with turtle carapaces and animal heads and horns. A researcher studying the skeletons said several of the bodies had been scalped. He concluded the cut marks on the bones of 10 people out of 281 skeletons he studied were not from wounding but defleshing. He says cannibalism was unlikely.
Defleshing was a way to help the dead person make the transition from life to death. Cut marks on bones indicating defleshing had taken place have been found worldwide, but because in most cases the people died before there was record-keeping, researchers have had to puzzle out why people would do this to corpses.
In February Ancient-Origins reported on archaeologists studying a cave in southeast Italy with defleshed remains of people who died 7,500 years ago. Archaeologists said they are the first known cases in New Stone Age Europe of people scraping the flesh off 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.
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“Bone and flesh is one of the most distinctive binary oppositions,” writes Yilmaz Selim Erdal of Hacettepe University in Ankara, in a paper about his research in the European Journal of Archaeology. “In Anatolia, there is a saying that ‘Eti senin, kemiği benim’ (‘meat is yours, bone is mine’). In this phrase, bone reflects both lineage and life.”
In the 2000s, archaeologists excavated more than 800 skeletons at a Neolithic village at Körtik Tepe in Diyarbakir Province in Turkey in preparation for construction of a dam. Erdal studied the skeletons of 281 people and found that nine or 10 had cut marks indicating defleshing on their crania and other bones. He also found bones had been painted and plastered.
Graves from Körtik Tepe Pof 8,000 to 7,000 BC showed burials underneath houses; plastering of skeleton with cut marks on the skull. PNA layers; and grave goods, including beads, axes and stone bowls. (Photo: Körtik photo archive/European Journal of Archaeology )
Archaeologists found a settlement first inhabited around 10400 to 9250 BC, though there are signs people were living in the area 20,000 years ago or longer. (The ruins of a medieval village are also at the site). The people of Körtik Tepe were hunter-gatherer-fisher people who stayed in one place and ate entirely wild plants, animals and fish. That is, they had not done any domestication of plants or animals or agriculture. It is one of the earliest sites of sedentary hunter-gatherers, according to KortikTepe.com.
Their houses were circular, from 2.3 to 3.8 meters (7.5 to 12.5 feet), with hard-earth floors and rubble walls with various types of roofing material. They also had silos and what Erdal calls public buildings, though he doesn’t say what their purpose was; perhaps feasting.
The site of Körtik Tepe on the west bank of the Tigris River has been under excavation since 2000. (Photo by http://kortiktepe.com/en/)
They buried the bodies of their deceased under floors, close to walls or in the spaces between buildings. Burial goods in this village are considered richer and more advanced than other contemporaneous villages’ stuff and tell a lot about their society:
Even though burials without any objects were encountered, a significant number of the corpses were buried with grave goods of varying quality and quantity. Among these grave goods are beads (numbering in the thousands) made of stone, shell, and bone; obsidian and flint tools; grinding stones, axes, pestles, beads, bone tools, mortars; decorated or simple stone bowls; stone and bone plaques and amulets; [fishing] net weights, etc. On the basis of the use-wear observed on the objects and other discoveries from the settlement, it was suggested that the objects, the majority of which were recovered from burials, were also used in daily life. In addition, there are some instances of a complete turtle carapace being placed around the skulls and graves encircled with animal heads and horns, as well as other finds that represent unique cases with respect to the burial customs. The grave goods display similarities to those from many other PPN [pre-pottery Neolithic] settlements …
Archaeologists have found stone tools and axes, beads made from many substances, stone bowls and other objects. (Photo by Körtiktepe.com)
Erdal explained that the Dayak people of Borneo believe that when a body has fully decomposed and has clean bones, the soul has completed its journey and finally reached the ancestral land.
“Cremation and burial accelerate the disposal of the body. Defleshing can likewise be considered as an acceleration process. Hence, the underlying rationale for these post-depositional treatments can be understood as speeding up the process of joining the ancestors or making the deceased person leave this world for good. The archaeological evidence of secondary burials, removal of the heads, plastering of skulls, painting bones, and plastering skeletons in the PPN settlements of the Middle East indicate that the defleshing process, or at least the decomposition of the body, had an important place in a belief system. Defleshing might be interpreted in terms of the completion of death, while preserving the clean bone played an important part in Neolithic communities’ rituals,” Erdal explained.
Similary, the authors of the paper on the cut skeletons in Italy wrote that defleshing may have been “the final termination of a prolonged, intimate interaction between living and dead: the end to mourning.”
Featured image: Grave from Körtik Tepe 8,000 to 7,000 BC showed plastering of skeleton with cut marks on the bones. (Photo: Körtik photo archive/European Journal of Archaeology)
By Mark Miller