As a former newspaper editor I understand the barely contained glee of using the word “defleshing”or “dismemberment” in a headline. Absolutely no question it would turn heads all over town.
Unfortunately the media’s tendency to overplay the significance of the defleshing or dismemberment in question casts a bloody pall on our distant ancestors and deprives readers of the true motivation behind these grisly deeds.
A closer look suggests the bodies were processed and prepared for an annual funeral for the year’s dead that encompassed the entire community and was almost certainly a healthy and cathartic event.
Thousands of years ago life was relatively short. Hunters died in accidents, women died in childbirth and the young died for any number of reasons. Rather than holding a funeral for each death, forensic evidence in Ireland and the U.K. suggests yearly gatherings were held to release the souls of the year’s dead from their bones to the spirit world.
As people died during the year the bodies were left in a selected sacred place for nature to take its course. As the date for the funeral ceremony approached it would have been relatively easy for priests to gather the bones from those laid out for many months, but the more recent dead had to be dismembered and sometimes defleshed.
The forensic evidence
So far ancient tombs containing corpses that were defleshed and/or dismembered have been identified at three sites in Ireland (Millin Bay, Carrowmore, and Carrowkeel) and across the U.K. (Coldrum in Kent, Adlestrop and West Tump in Gloucestershire, Hambledon Hill in Dorset, Coldrum, and Haddenham northwest of London and Qaunterness in Orkney).
At the Tomb of Eagles in the Orkney Islands of Scotland human bodies were left to be scavenged by white-tailed eagles before the bones were collected and entombed along with the eagles. Leg and arm bones were neatly stacked and skulls were placed on stone shelves along the walls.
At Adlestrop and West Tump, corpses were left out to be scavenged by animals. At Kent and Haddenham, rotting muscles and ligaments were cut away long after death so bodies could be dismembered.
The forensic evidence contains a clue to the meaning of these grisly burial practices that often goes unmentioned or drowned out by the sensationalism of the topic: Only a small fraction of bones show evidence of defleshing or dismemberment.
At the Carrowkeel tombs in Ireland, archaeologists excavated a minimum of 29 people, but dismemberment cut-marks were found on only 12 bones, which may have come from just one person. The study noted that the person or persons could have been defleshed before being dismembered, but the evidence was inconclusive.
A Neolithic Halloween
Assuming an annual burial was held, at what time of year was the ceremony performed?
The late British archaeologist Aubrey Burl believed Neolithic-era people across the British Isles traveled as far as 100 miles to attend a massive feast held in late autumn inside stone rings that ranged up to 24 acres in size, accommodating well over a thousand people.
Burl cited the remains of hazelnuts, crab apples, and calves at various archaeological sites to suggest the gatherings took place in late autumn, when summer blooms have passed, the leaves are falling and bone-chilling cold sets in. The time of year for death.
Ancient cultures across western Europe believed birds carried human souls to the heavens, and a burial ritual in late October or early November would have coincided with the bird migration season. Perhaps communal funerals were the roots of the Celtic festival of Samhain, a time when souls were thought to travel through a thinner veil between the material and spirit worlds.
British folklorist Lewis Spence wrote of supernatual beings “composed of the souls of the dead flying through the air, and the feast of the dead at Hallowe’en was likewise the festival of the fairies.”
An ancient crypt on Cape Cod
Native Americans from Iowa to the East Coast left bodies to decompose before ritual dismemberment and burial, though scholars haven’t determined a specific time of year for the practice.
A study of human bones found in the Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa showed they were buried after the bodies were left in the open to decompose. In 1979, a crypt-like ossuary was found buried on Indian Neck in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. A forensic examination revealed the bones of 56 different people had been sorted into separate piles of limbs and skulls.
There’s no way of knowing what time of year the ossuary was buried, but Cape Cod is an autumn gathering place for millions of small beach-dwelling birds along the New England and Canadian coastline as they prepare to head much farther south for the winter.
Although the practice of cutting dead flesh and pulling bones from rotting bodies was a grisly business, it was likely carried out in private by a select few who presided over a funereal ritual intended to process the trauma of death at a communal level. All the year’s dead had to be released at once, to journey through the spirit world together.
The autumn festival of birds
Perhaps the most mythologized of all bird species, whooper swans gather in large flocks in late fall to prepare for migration by fueling up on algae and mollusks. After a summer apart, whoopers engage in extensive and vocal greeting displays.
After about 10 days of feasting, the entire whooper flock begins a remarkable song-and-dance routine that steadily accelerates in pace and volume, faster and louder until the birds finally take off on their migration.
After observing the phenomenon, ornithologist Mark Brazil wrote that the loud calling and frenzied dancing appeared to be the whoopers’ way of getting psyched up for the long journey. After all it would be no easy task for whoopers to take flight following a 10-day feast.
In his book The Whooper Swan (2003, T & A D Poyser), Brazil noted that whoopers weigh up to 25 pounds, placing them among the largest migratory birds in the world, with a wingspan up to nine feet.
In the ancient past, when migratory birds were seen as soul guides to the afterlife, it’s plausible that people imitated the gathering of birds in late October and early November, right down to the feasting and dancing of the whooper, whose habitat touched much of the ancient world.
At the end of the ceremonies our distant ancestors might have raised their own spirits with singing, dancing and toasting the flocks that carried the souls of the year’s dead beyond the distant horizon. As the whoopers followed the sun south, the observers might have imagined the souls of their friends and families going to a sunny garden in a faraway paradise.
(Ben H. Gagnon is the author of Church of Birds: an eco-history of myth and religion, coming March 31 from John Hunt Publishing in London; now available for pre-order. More information can be found at this website, including a link to two YouTube videos on the book.)