Why These Stone-Age Farmers Took the Flesh Off Their Dead

New research shows evidence of an early burial rite

Jad Davenport/National Geographic Creative/Corbis

Scaloria Cave is on the east coast of Italy, on a little nub of land that juts out into the Adriatic Sea. Until 1931, it was sealed off from the world, and since it was first discovered, scientists have been unearthing secrets from the Neolithic remains found there. Now, they've come to a new understand of how these farmers mourned their dead 7,500 years ago—they learned that European farmers used to “deflesh” their dead, Garry Shaw reports for Science

When researchers from the University of Cambridge examined the bones of 22 Neolithic humans, they found evidence of cut marks suggesting that farmers removed residual muscle tissue from select bones, which they transported as far as 12 miles before depositing in the cave up to a year after the person’s death.

Though they aren’t sure what exactly was involved in Neolithic burial rites, reports Shaw, the condition of the bones seems to suggest that the farmers defleshed the bones in order to preserve them at the end of a year-long mourning ritual along with other items like vessels and animal bones.

John Robb, who led the team, thinks the cave was significant to Neolithic mourners due to its impressive stalactites, which resembled the very bones they buried there. Unlike modern mourners, he notes, ancient farmers were more comfortable with the dead:

Death is a cultural taboo for us. People in our culture tend to shun death and try to have brief, once-and-for-all interactions with the dead. But in many ancient cultures, people had prolonged interaction with the dead, either from long, multistage burial rituals such as this one, or because the dead remained present as ancestors, powerful relics, spirits, or potent memories.

The team notes that while defleshing has been found in other cultures worldwide, it’s the first time research has linked the practice to prehistoric Europe. But funeral rites aren’t the only things being revealed by research on the farmers of yesteryear—a team from the University of New Mexico has discovered “elaborate irrigation systems” used by Chilean farmers who were able to harness water in the world’s driest desert.