Why Ancient People Cut Flesh Off the Dead

Researchers find telling cut marks on prehistoric bones
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 30, 2015 4:44 PM CDT
Ancient Italians Cut Flesh Off the Dead
A skull is discovered in a mass grave.   (AP Photo/Jason Straziuso)

Farmers living in Italy thousands of years ago had a special relationship with their dead that involved "defleshing" the bones and leaving them in a murky cave, according to a recent study. Researchers gleaned this by looking at bones from 22 Neolithic humans discovered in Scaloria Cave on Italy's east coast, Smithsonian reports. Some of the bones bear cut marks, suggesting that Stone-Age Italians cut off residual muscle tissue before walking up to 12 miles and placing the bones in the cave. Why the cutting, and why the cave? That's how these people mourned their dead 7,500 years ago, researchers say, perhaps by first burying some bones for a year, removing whatever was left on them, and putting them in a place they considered spiritual. And this stalactite-filled cave seems to fit the bill.

Not only do stalactites resemble bones, but these ancient Italians gathered the stalactites' dripping water, likely in the belief that it held spiritual power, the University of Cambridge team tells Science. The researchers suggest that bones left there may have been returned to their "origins" in a completion of the life cycle. "Death is a cultural taboo for us," says lead researcher John Robb. "But in many ancient cultures, people had prolonged interaction with the dead, either from long, multi-stage burial rituals such as this one, or because the dead remained present as ancestors, powerful relics, spirits, or potent memories." Indeed, other cultures have been linked to defleshing, but this is the first evidence of defleshing in prehistoric Europe. (Meanwhile, an ancient basilica may hold an apostle's ashes.)

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