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In archaeology and anthropology, the term excarnation (also known as defleshing) refers to the practice of removing the flesh and organs of the dead before burial.

Archaeology, or archeology, is the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. The archaeological record consists of artifacts, architecture, biofacts or ecofacts and cultural landscapes. Archaeology can be considered both a social science and a branch of the humanities. In North America archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology, while in Europe it is often viewed as either a discipline in its own right or a sub-field of other disciplines.

Anthropology The science of human behavior and societies

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology studies patterns of behaviour and cultural anthropology studies cultural meaning, including norms and values. Linguistic anthropology studies how language influences social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.

A cadaver is a dead human body that is used by medical students, physicians and other scientists to study anatomy, identify disease sites, determine causes of death, and provide tissue to repair a defect in a living human being. Students in medical school study and dissect cadavers as a part of their education. Others who study cadavers include archaeologists and artists.


Excarnation may be precipitated through natural means, involving leaving a body exposed for animals to scavenge, or it may be purposefully undertaken by butchering the corpse by hand.

Platform burial

Practices making use of natural processes for excarnation are the Tibetan sky burial, Comanche platform burials, and traditional Zoroastrian funerals (see Tower of Silence).

Comanche Plains native North American tribe

The Comanche are a Native-American nation from the Great Plains whose historic territory consisted of most of present-day northwestern Texas and adjacent areas in eastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and northern Chihuahua. Within the united States, the government federally recognizes the Comanche people as the Comanche Nation, headquartered in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Zoroastrianism Iranian religion founded by Zoroaster

Zoroastrianism or Mazdayasna is one of the world's oldest continuously practiced religions. It is centered in a dualistic cosmology of good and evil and an eschatology predicting the ultimate conquest of evil with theological elements of henotheism, monotheism/monism, and polytheism. Ascribed to the teachings of the Iranian-speaking spiritual leader Zoroaster, it exalts an uncreated and benevolent deity of wisdom, Ahura Mazda, as its supreme being. Major features of Zoroastrianism, such as messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will may have influenced other religious and philosophical systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam, the Bahá'í Faith, and Buddhism.

Tower of Silence Structure used by Zoroastrians to dispose of their dead

A Dakhma', also known as the 'Tower of Silence', is a circular, raised structure built by Zoroastrians for excarnation – that is, for dead bodies to be exposed to carrion birds, usually vultures.

Archaeologists believe that in this practice, people typically left the body exposed on a woven litter or altar. When the excarnation was complete, the litter with its remains would be removed from the site. Since metatarsals, finger bones and toe bones are very small, they would easily fall through gaps in the woven structure or roll off the side during this removal. Thus, a site in which only small bones are found is suggestive of ritual excarnation.

Some Native American groups in the southeastern portion of North America practised deliberate excarnation in protohistoric times.

Native Americans in the United States Indigenous peoples of the United States (except Hawaii)

Native Americans, also known as American Indians, Indigenous Americans and other terms, are the indigenous peoples of the United States, except Hawaii and territories of the United States. More than 570 federally recognized tribes live within the US, about half of which are associated with Indian reservations. The term "American Indian" excludes Native Hawaiians and some Alaskan Natives, while "Native Americans" are American Indians, plus Alaska Natives of all ethnicities. The US Census does not include Native Hawaiians or Chamorro, instead being included in the Census grouping of "Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander".

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Protohistory is a period between prehistory and history, during which a culture or civilization has not yet developed writing but other cultures have already noted its existence in their own writings. For example, in Europe, the Celts and the Germanic tribes are considered to have been protohistoric when they began appearing in Greek and Roman sources.

There have been numerous solar concentrators installed in Mumbai to incinerate the body as an alternative way to naturally break it down to bare bones in just 3 days. These practices are changing due to a shortage of vultures in India, and has caused the practice to evolve in order to still serve the same purpose. [1]

Other methods

From the pattern of marks on some human bones at prehistoric sites, researchers have inferred that members of the community removed the flesh from the bones as part of its burial practices. [2]

Neolithic farmers living in Tavoliere, Italy, over 7000 years ago practiced ritual defleshing of the dead. Light cut marks suggest that the bones were defleshed up to a year after death. The bones were deposited in Scaloria Cave and, when excavated, were mixed with animal bones, broken pottery and stone tools. [3]

In the Middle Ages, excarnation was practised by European cultures as a way to preserve the bones when the deceased was of high status or had died some distance from home. One notable example of a person who underwent excarnation following death was Christopher Columbus [ citation needed ]. The American Revolutionary War general, Anthony Wayne, also underwent a form of excarnation. [4] A practice known as mos teutonicus , or active excarnation, was a German custom. The bodies were broken down differently than solely defleshing, they were cut up and subsequently boiled in either wine, water, or vinegar. [5]

In modern Japan, where cremation is predominant, it is common for close relatives of the deceased to transfer, using special chopsticks, the remaining bones from the ashes to a special jar in which they will be interred. However, in ancient Japanese society, prior to the introduction of Buddhism and the funerary practice of cremation, the corpse was exposed in a manner very similar to the Tibetan sky burial.The Kalash people of Pakistan until recently ( mid 1980s ) practiced above ground burial in large wood coffins were the dead were lied with all their best belongings in cemeteries called Madokjal or place of many coffins . This tradition had been dieing off with the last being the burial of a shaman in 1985 , until the burial in 2016 of Batakeen of Anish village Bumburet .

Pre-contact Hawaiians ritually defleshed the bones of high-ranking nobles (ali'i) so that they could be interred in reliquaries for later veneration. The remains of Captain Cook, who the Hawaiians had believed to be the god Lono, were treated this way after his death. The Moriori people of the Chatham Islands (now part of New Zealand) placed their dead in a sitting position in the sand dunes looking out to sea; others were strapped to young trees in the forest. In time, the tree grew into and through the bones, making them one.

Following the excarnation process, many societies retrieved the bones for burial.

Defleshing during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages in Europe, defleshing was a mortuary procedure used mainly to prepare human remains for transport over long distances. The practice was used only for nobility. It involved removing skin, muscles, and organs from a body, leaving only the bones. In this procedure, the head, arms, and legs were detached from the body. The process left telltale cuts on the bones.

King Saint Louis IX of France is said to have been defleshed by boiling his corpse until the flesh separated from the bones. This was intended to preserve his bones, to avoid decaying of the remains during their return to France from the Eighth Crusade, and to provide relics. The process is known as mos Teutonicus. [6]

Distinguishing excarnation from cannibalism

Archaeologists seeking to study the practice of ritual excarnation in the archeological record must differentiate between the removal of flesh as a burial practice, and as a precursor to cannibalism. [7] When human bones exhibiting signs of flesh removal are discovered in the fossil record, a variety of criteria can be used to distinguish between the two. One common approach is to compare the tool marks and other cuts on the bones with butchered animal bones from the same site, with the assumption that cannibalized humans would have been prepared like any other meat, whereas excarnated bodies would be prepared differently. Cannibalized bones, in contrast to excarnated bones, may also exhibit telltale signs such as human tooth marks, broken long bones (to facilitate marrow extraction), and signs of cooking, such as "pot polishing". [7] [8]

Related Research Articles

Human cannibalism Practice of humans eating the flesh or internal organs of other human beings

Human cannibalism is the act or practice of humans eating the flesh or internal organs of other human beings. A person who practices cannibalism is called a cannibal. The expression cannibalism has been extended into zoology to mean one individual of a species consuming all or part of another individual of the same species as food, including sexual cannibalism.

Burial Ritual act of placing a dead person into the ground

Burial or interment is a method of final disposition wherein a dead person or animal is placed into the ground, sometimes with objects. This is usually accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing the deceased and objects in it, and covering it over. A funeral is a ceremony that accompanies the final disposition. Humans have been burying their dead since shortly after the origin of the species. Burial is often seen as indicating respect for the dead. It has been used to prevent the odor of decay, to give family members closure and prevent them from witnessing the decomposition of their loved ones, and in many cultures it has been seen as a necessary step for the deceased to enter the afterlife or to give back to the cycle of life.

A mortuary enclosure is a term given in archaeology and anthropology to an area, surrounded by a wood, stone or earthwork barrier, in which dead bodies are placed for excarnation and to await secondary and/or collective burial. There are some parallels with mortuary houses although the two are the products of different cultural practices and traditions regarding the treatment of the dead.

Middle Paleolithic Hominin events for the last 10 million years

The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. The term Middle Stone Age is used as an equivalent or a synonym for the Middle Paleolithic in African archeology. The Middle Paleolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. There are considerable dating differences between regions. The Middle Paleolithic was succeeded by the Upper Paleolithic subdivision which first began between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. Pettit and White date the Early Middle Paleolithic in Great Britain to about 325,000 to 180,000 years ago, and the Late Middle Paleolithic as about 60,000 to 35,000 years ago.

The Issedones (Ἰσσηδόνες) were an ancient people of Central Asia at the end of the trade route leading north-east from Scythia, described in the lost Arimaspeia of Aristeas, by Herodotus in his History (IV.16-25) and by Ptolemy in his Geography. Like the Massagetae to the south, the Issedones are described by Herodotus as similar to, yet distinct from, the Scythians.

Sky burial human funeral practice

Sky burial is a funeral practice in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop to decompose while exposed to the elements or to be eaten by scavenging animals, especially carrion birds. It is a specific type of the general practice of excarnation. It is practiced in the Chinese provinces and autonomous regions of Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, as well as in Mongolia, Bhutan and parts of India such as Sikkim and Zanskar. The locations of preparation and sky burial are understood in the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions as charnel grounds. Comparable practices are part of Zoroastrian burial practices where deceased are exposed to the elements and birds of prey on stone structures called Dakhma. Few such places remain operational today due to religious marginalisation, urbanisation and the decimation of vulture populations.

Disposal of human corpses, also called final disposition, is the practice and process of dealing with the remains of a deceased human being. Like most animals, when humans die, their bodies start to decompose, emitting a foul odor and attracting scavengers and decomposers. Disposal methods may need to account for the fact that soft tissues will decompose relatively rapidly, while the skeleton will remain intact for thousands of years under certain conditions.

Maceration (bone) Maceration is a bone preparation technique

Maceration is a bone preparation technique whereby a clean skeleton is obtained from a vertebrate carcass by leaving it to decompose inside a closed container at near-constant temperature. This may be done as part of a forensic investigation, as a recovered body is too badly decomposed for a meaningful autopsy, but with enough flesh or skin remaining as to obscure macroscopically visible evidence, such as cut-marks. In most cases, maceration is done on the carcass of an animal for educational purposes.

Chinchorro mummies mummified remains from the Chinchorro culture, found in northern Chile

The Chinchorro mummies are mummified remains of individuals from the South American Chinchorro culture, found in what is now northern Chile. They are the oldest examples of artificially mummified human remains, having been buried up to two thousand years before the Egyptian mummies. While the earliest mummy that has been found in Egypt dated around 3000 BC, the oldest anthropogenically modified Chinchorro mummy dates from around 5050 BC.

Cowboy Wash

Cowboy Wash is a group of nine archaeological sites used by Ancient Puebloans in Montezuma County, southwestern Colorado, United States. Each site includes one to three pit houses, and was discovered in 1993 during an archaeological dig. The remains of twelve humans were found at one of the pit house sites, dating to the 12th century.

Mos Teutonicus

Mos Teutonicus was a postmortem funerary custom used in Europe in the Middle Ages as a means of transporting, and solemnly disposing of, the bodies of high status individuals. The process involved the removal of the flesh from the body, so that the bones of the deceased could be transported hygienically from distant lands back home.

Cannibalism is a recurring theme in popular culture, especially within the horror genre, and has been featured in a range of media that includes film, television, literature, music and video games. Examples of prominent artists who have worked with the topic of cannibalism include William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Bret Easton Ellis, and Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Minoan religion

Minoan religion was the religion of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization of Crete. Modern scholars have reconstructed it almost totally on the basis of archaeological remains rather than texts. Minoan religion is considered to have been closely related to Near Eastern prehistoric religions, and its central deity is generally agreed to have been a goddess. Prominent Minoan sacred symbols include the bull and its horns of consecration, the labrys, and the serpent.

Buddhist funeral Buddhist rites after a persons death

In Buddhism, death marks the transition from this life to the next for the deceased.

Jar burials are human burials where the corpse is placed into a large earthenware and then is interred. Jar-burials are a repeated pattern at a site or within an archaeological culture. When an anomalous burial is found in which a corpse or cremated remains have been interred, it is not considered a "jar burial".

Herxheim (archaeological site) located in the town

The archaeological site of Herxheim, located in the municipality of Herxheim in southwest Germany, was a ritual center and a mass grave formed by people of the Linear Pottery culture (LBK) culture in Neolithic Europe. The site is often compared to that of the Talheim Death Pit and Schletz-Asparn, but is quite different in nature. The site dates from between 5300 and 4950 BC.

Fontbrégoua Cave Cave and archaeological site in southern France

Fontbrégoua Cave is an archaeological site located in Provence, Southeastern France. It was used by humans in the fifth and fourth millennia BCE, in what is now known as the Early and Middle Neolithic. A temporary residential site, it was used by Neolithic agriculturalists as a storage area for their herds of goats and sheep, and also contained a number of bone depositions, containing the remains of domestic species, wild animals, and humans. The inclusion of the latter of these deposits led the archaeological team studying the site to propose that cannibalism had taken place at Fontbrégoua, although other archaeologists have instead suggested that they represent evidence of secondary burial.

Venado Beach

Venado Beach is a Pre-Columbian archaeological site on the Pacific coast of Panama. Named for the Venado River, near whose mouth it was found, the site was excavated by Samuel Kirkland Lothrop, Neville A. Harte and Lt. Col. Montgomery in 1951. Venado Beach is part of the Gran Coclé culture. This site is notable for its large number and variety of burials and grave goods, especially those with offerings objects of gold and evidence for human sacrifice. Radiocarbon dating places the principal occupation of this site at AD 200-900


  1. Markandya, Anil; Taylor, Tim; Longo, Alberto; Murty, M.N.; Murty, S.; Dhavala, K. (2008). "Counting the cost of vulture decline—An appraisal of the human health and other benefits of vultures in India" (PDF). Ecological Economics. 67 (2): 194–204. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.04.020. hdl:10036/4350.
  2. Barber, Paul (1989). Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality. New York: Yale University Press. pp. 171–172. ISBN   0-300-04859-9.
  3. Shaw, Garry (27 March 2015). "Stone-age Italians defleshed their dead". Science . AAAS . Retrieved 27 March 2015.
  4. Hugh T. Harrington and Lisa A. Ennis. "Mad" Anthony Wayne: His Body Did Not Rest in Peace. http://www.americanrevolution.org/wayne.html, citing History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, vol. 1. pp. 211–2. Warner, Beers & Co., Chicago. 1884.
  5. Interacting with the dead : perspectives on mortuary archaeology for the new millennium. Rakita, Gordon F. M., 1971-. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2005. ISBN   0813028566. OCLC   60742129.CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. Westerhof, Danielle (October 16, 2008). Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England. Boydell Press. ISBN   978-1843834168.
  7. 1 2 Scott, G. Richard; McMurry, Sean (2014-10-20). "The Delicate Question: Cannibalism in Prehistoric and Historic Times". An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN   9780806185521.
  8. "Beyond Stone and Bone » Criteria for Cannibalism - Archaeology Magazine Archive". archive.archaeology.org. Retrieved 2018-06-06.