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Stone Age Orkney Islanders Dismembered Deceased Relatives and Defleshed their Bones

Stone Age Orkney Islanders Dismembered Deceased Relatives and Defleshed their Bones

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Millennia ago on the island of Orkney off the north coast of Scotland, prehistoric people removed the flesh from the bones of dead members of their community, chopped up the bodies and buried them jumbled together.

Defleshing of human bones has been observed in the archaeological record in various places around the world, including Turkey, the Philippines, Bolivia and Italy, all reported by Ancient Origins (see below).

A sensational headline on a story in the Daily Mail states, “Ancient Orkney islanders ripped flesh from dead relatives, chopped up their bodies and mixed them in mass graves in grisly ritual.”

Earlier archaeological studies had noted that the bones of dead Orkney islanders had been mixed at two sites. Those bones were not intact, complete skeletons. Earlier studies concluded the bodies were burned or buried to strip the flesh off the bones and then certain bones were transferred to a tomb. Evidence of similar behavior has been found in southern England, the Daily Mail states.

Dr. Rebecca Crozier of the University of the Philippines published a study in May in the pay-to-access Journal of Archaeological Science saying the bones she examined, from about 6,000 years ago, showed mourners transferred full bodies to tombs. There, people chopped up the bodies and scraped flesh from their bones. Dr. Crozier is an archaeologist who specializes in mortuary analysis, forensic archaeology and osteology or the study of bones.

The Orkney Islands have 72 known cairns or stone memorials that contained human bones that scientists have studied in the past. The cairns were made as long ago as 4000 BC.

Entrance to Chambered Cairn, Orkney

Entrance to Chambered Cairn, Orkney (public domain)

Dr. Crozier studied 12,275 bone fragments that had been previously excavated from two prehistoric tombs, one from Quanterness and one from Quoyness. Researchers have published dozens of studies on the ancient bones and burial practices of Orkney, the Daily Mail says.

Earlier researchers thought bones were missing from the Quanterness tombs, but Dr. Crozier found they were there but shattered into small pieces. She said she found evidence of dismemberment, including 10 cut marks, 19 chop marks and three scrape marks. Also, she saw 40 bones with pitting, possibly with a hard object or striking tool.

At Quoyness, she found 10 percent of the bones were modified in similar ways and calls it evidence of dismemberment.

Archaeologists examining thousands of bone fragments from the sites at Orkney found evidence which suggests bodies were hacked apart and had the flesh removed, before they were buried.

Archaeologists examining thousands of bone fragments from the sites at Orkney found evidence which suggests bodies were hacked apart and had the flesh removed, before they were buried. Credit: Deadline News

The Neolithic islanders may have thought of their dead ancestors not as individuals but as a collective, and the dismemberments were meant to “transform the individual to corporate identity” by mixing them all together, Dr. Crozier wrote. She calls it “an expression of shared ancestral belonging.”

She said bodies decompose at different rates depending on various factors, including time of year, and if the bodies weren’t decaying fast enough, perhaps the islanders helped them along by defleshing them down to bone.

Ancient Origins has reported several times about defleshing, including:

  • In February 2015, archaeologists investigating a religious complex in Bolivia discovered an ancient mortuary dating from between 2,000 and 1,500 years ago 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”.  
  • In April 2015, research suggested 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.
  • In March 2015, archaeologists studying a cave in southeast Italy with remains of people who died 7,500 years ago said they 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. The researchers ruled out cannibalism and other violence and said the cemetery was not disturbed later by vandals. 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.
  • In October 2013, a team of scientists announced they’d discovered the 9,000-year-old remains of a woman buried in a cave in El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines, which reveal evidence that her bones were defleshed and crushed. They were burned and put in a small box before she was put in her final resting place. According to the study, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, the burial "demonstrate(s) a complex ritualistic treatment" that "has not (yet) been recorded in Southeast Asia." It was the first evidence of cremation in Southeast Asia in that period.

Top image: Main - One of many chambered cairns in Orkney ( Inset – Bone fragment found in Orkney burial showing cut marks. Credit: Deadline News

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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