Defleshing Rituals and Boiled Brains

It’s Monday morning, and we all know what that means: stories about ancient defleshing rituals and 4000-year-old brains.

Let’s start with the defleshing, since it’s a word I just don’t get to use enough any more:

Archaeologists have recently published in the International Journal of Osteoarcheology, a full report on the discovery of early Holocene burials while excavating in the Ille cave, Palawan, Philippines, where the bones of one individual bear the marks of a complex de-fleshing ritual.

Examination of the reconstructed individual showed evidence of multi-directional grooves on the left tibia and perforations on the ends of the left fibula that suggest that actions had occurred to the body that are not usually related to the post mortem processing.

For example, numerous bone surface modifications were identified within the skeletal remains including scrape marks, cut-marks and impact scars, that were all characteristic of damage caused by people in the course of processing the body.

Cut-marks occurred as single or grouped linear incisions, predominantly located at points on the bone close to ends which suggests the joints were severed. Impact scars tended to be in discrete areas where a heavy object had impacted on the bone surface.

The presence of scrape marks extending across two or more reconstructed fragments of bone fractured skeletal elements implied also that defleshing had occurred prior to the bones being smashed. The presence of striations on the surfaces also indicated that areas of bones struck were already de-fleshed. If the flesh had been present, it would have sustained the impact, protecting the bones from damage.

It is possible to reconstruct the final acts of ritual, as the skinned and de-fleshed skull, femur, tibia and arm bones were hammered and smashed with a hammerstone on a stone anvil.

The bones were then collected for cremation and subjected to a temperature that was high enough for calcination to occur – though there are variations in the burn marks which need further analysis.

The bone fragments after cremation were collected, cleaned and placed in a container or bag before the final deposition or burial.

As I wrote in my series on burial customs in ancient Israel, it was more common for cultures to either cremate or allow flesh to decompose naturally, rather than stripping flesh, which is a pretty gruesome approach to caring for the dead. It raises all kinds of questions about what these ancient peoples felt and thought about the departed.

Ancient brain (Halic University Istanbul)

Next up: ancient, preserved brains boiled right in the skull:

Shaken, scorched and boiled in its own juices, this 4000-year-old human brain has been through a lot.

It may look like nothing more than a bit of burnt log, but it is one of the oldest brains ever found. Its discovery, and the story now being pieced together of its owner’s last hours, offers the tantalising prospect that archaeological remains could harbour more ancient brain specimens than thought. If that’s the case, it potentially opens the way to studying the health of the brain in prehistoric times.

The skeletons were found burnt in a layer of sediment that also contained charred wooden objects. Given that the region is tectonically active, Altinoz speculates that an earthquake flattened the settlement and buried the people before fire spread through the rubble.

The flames would have consumed any oxygen in the rubble and boiled the brains in their own fluids. The resulting lack of moisture and oxygen in the environment helped prevent tissue breakdown.

The final factor in the brains’ preservation was the chemistry of the soil, which is rich in potassium, magnesium and aluminium. These elements reacted with the fatty acids from the human tissue to form a soapy substance called adipocere. Also known as corpse wax, it effectively preserved the shape of the soft brain tissue.

I ask you: do any other Catholic blogs bring you stories that let you know about corpse wax? I think not.

Don’t thank me: just imagining your shocked expressions is thanks enough.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Kathryn Coe

    I think I’ll turn that into an new interjection. “Holy Corpse Wax, Batman! They’re getting away!”

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I can always count on you to brighten my day.

  • Mark.

    First thing I thought of was St. Thomas Aquinas’ incorrupt body being boiled so that the skeletal relics would be more portable. (I think that several groups were fighting over his remains and all wanted more than a piece of him.)

    I vaguely recall reading that in a biography years ago and hope I imagined it.


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