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Did Stone Age humans deflesh their dead?

last modified Apr 09, 2015 10:14 AM
Cut marks on European Neolithic human bones show evidence of an early burial rite


Researchers led by John Robb, Reader in European prehistory, Division of Archaeology, have discovered cut marks made by stone tools on 7,000 year old human remains in the Scaloria Cave in Puglia, south eastern Italy.  The fine cut marks and scrapes suggest the bones had had their flesh carefully removed in rituals before being placed in the cave.

Robb's team think cleaning of the dead was probably the culmination of a protracted multi-stage burial process.  Farmers from villages up to 12 miles away are thought to have brought their dead to the Scaloria Cave and research shows they engaged in a varied range of funerary practices including primary burial, skull removal and redeposition, and defleshing and secondary redeposition. 

Said Robb: " many ancient cultures, people had prolonged interaction with the dead, either from long, multistage burial rituals as this one, or because the dead remained present as ancestors, powerful relics, spirits, or potent memories."

They think it might also have been a way of returning the bones to their stone like origins.  Many of the stalactites in the cave resemble bones and the floor is littered with long, thin broken stalactites. 

'If we suppose that stalactites were understood as equivalent to bones on a stone-like plane of existence, then cleaning bones and returning them to the stalactite-filled cave may have been understood as returning the bones to an eternal place where they came into being, the conclusion of a cycle of temporal incarnation.

'Conversely, the water that formed 'stone bones' in the cave (stalactites) and hence bones in the living may have been understood as spiritually powerful or nourishing.'

Defleshing has been found in other cultures worldwide but this is the first time research has linked the practice to prehistoric Europe.


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Posted: 07/04/2015


An Oral History of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research