- Jun 2009
- land of Califia
Stone-age Italians defleshed their dead | Science/AAAS | News
About 7000 years ago in Italy, early farmers practiced an unusual burial ritual known as “defleshing.” When people died, villagers stripped their bones bare, pulled them apart, and mingled them with animal remains in a nearby cave. The practice was meant to separate the dead from the living, researchers say, writing in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity.
“[Defleshing] is something which occurs in burial rites around the world but hasn't been known for prehistoric Europe yet," says John Robb, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and leader of the research project. Robb and his team examined the scattered bones of at least 22 Neolithic humans—many children—who died between 7200 and 7500 years ago. Their remains were buried in Scaloria Cave, a stalactite-filled grotto in the Tavoliere region of southeastern Italy, where Robb says that they provide the "first well-documented case for early farmers in Europe of people trying to actively deflesh the dead."
The cave—sealed off until its discovery in 1931—was uniquely able to preserve the human remains, which were mixed randomly with animal bones, broken pottery, and stone tools. This level of preservation is unusual: "Neolithic assemblages are often very challenging to interpret, as they are commonly broken, mixed up, and poorly preserved," says Martin Smith, a biological anthropologist at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the research.