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In archaeology and anthropology, the term excarnation (also known as defleshing) refers to the practice of removing the flesh and organs of the dead before burial.

Excarnation may be achieved through natural means, such as leaving a dead body exposed for animals to scavenge, or by butchering the corpse by hand.

Platform burial[edit]

Practices making use of natural processes for excarnation include Tibetan sky burials,[1] Comanche platform burials, and traditional Zoroastrian funerals (see Tower of Silence).[2] Archaeologists believe that in this practice, people typically left the body exposed on a woven litter or altar. Following excarnation, the litter with its remains would be removed from the site. Since metatarsals, finger bones and toe bones are very small, they would easily fall through gaps in a woven structure or roll off the side during this removal. Thus a site where only small bones are found is suggestive of ritual excarnation. Some Native American groups in the southeastern portion of North America practised excarnation in protohistoric times.

Current practice[edit]

The Parsis in Mumbai maintain a hilltop reserve, the Doongerwadi forest, in Malabar Hill with several Towers of Silence.[3] Due to a decline in vultures in India (due to changes in animal husbandry practices) the traditional excarnation practice has faced pressure to evolve while still serving the same purpose, so the trustees of the reserve introduced solar concentrators at the towers.[4][5] Other scavenger birds play a part but are not as efficient as vultures.[6]

Other methods[edit]

From the pattern of marks on some human bones at prehistoric sites, researchers have inferred that members of the community removed the flesh from the bones as part of its burial practices.[7]

Neolithic farmers living in Tavoliere, Italy, over 7000 years ago practiced ritual defleshing of the dead. Light cut marks suggest that the bones were defleshed up to a year after death. The bones were deposited in Scaloria Cave and, when excavated, were mixed with animal bones, broken pottery and stone tools.[8]

In the Middle Ages, excarnation was practised by European cultures as a way to preserve the bones when the deceased was of high status or had died some distance from home. One notable example of a person who underwent excarnation following death was Christopher Columbus[citation needed]. The American Revolutionary War general, Anthony Wayne, also underwent a form of excarnation.[9] A practice known as mos teutonicus, or active excarnation, was a German custom. The bodies were broken down differently than solely defleshing, they were cut up and boiled in either wine, water, or vinegar.[10]

In modern Japan, where cremation is predominant, it is common for close relatives of the deceased to transfer, using special chopsticks, the remaining bones from the ashes to a special jar in which they will be interred. However, in ancient Japanese society, prior to the introduction of Buddhism and the funerary practice of cremation, the corpse was exposed in a manner very similar to the Tibetan sky burial. The Kalash people of Pakistan until recently (mid 1980s) practiced above ground burial in large wooden coffins called Bahg'a were the dead were laid with all their best belongings in cemeteries called Madokjal or place of many coffins. This tradition had been dying off with the last being the burial of a shaman in 1985, until the burial in 2016 of Batakeen of Anish village Bumburet. The Bali Aga people of Trunyan village on Lake Batur in Bali practice customs found no where else on the island, these are the mountain Balinese and they practice Animistic traditions that predate the arrival of Hinduism in Bali. The burial custom here is for the bodies to be laid on the ground and left to decompose, with a cloth cover or a bamboo cage . Once the decomposition is complete the bones are placed on a stair shaped altar 500 feet to the north. A large banyan tree called the taru menyan literally called the nice smelling tree is thought to take away bad smells . Pre-contact Hawaiians ritually defleshed the bones of high-ranking nobles (ali'i) so that they could be interred in reliquaries for later veneration. The remains of Captain Cook, who the Hawaiians had believed to be the god Lono, were treated this way after his death. The Moriori people of the Chatham Islands (now part of New Zealand) placed their dead in a sitting position in the sand dunes looking out to sea; others were strapped to young trees in the forest. In time, the tree grew into and through the bones, making them one.

Following the excarnation process, many societies retrieved the bones for burial.[citation needed]

Defleshing during the Middle Ages[edit]

During the Middle Ages in Europe, defleshing was a mortuary procedure used mainly to prepare human remains for transport over long distances. The practice was used only for nobility. It involved removing skin, muscles, and organs from a body, leaving only the bones. In this procedure, the head, arms, and legs were detached from the body. The process left telltale cuts on the bones.

King Saint Louis IX of France is said to have been defleshed by boiling his corpse until the flesh separated from the bones. This was intended to preserve his bones, to avoid decaying of the remains during their return to France from the Eighth Crusade, and to provide relics. The process is known as mos Teutonicus.[11]

Distinguishing excarnation from cannibalism[edit]

Archaeologists seeking to study the practice of ritual excarnation in the archeological record must differentiate between the removal of flesh as a burial practice, and as a precursor to cannibalism.[12] When human bones exhibiting signs of flesh removal are discovered in the fossil record, a variety of criteria can be used to distinguish between the two. One common approach is to compare the tool marks and other cuts on the bones with butchered animal bones from the same site, with the assumption that cannibalized humans would have been prepared like any other meat, whereas excarnated bodies would be prepared differently. Cannibalized bones, in contrast to excarnated bones, may also exhibit telltale signs such as human tooth marks, broken long bones (to facilitate marrow extraction), and signs of cooking, such as "pot polishing".[12][13]


  1. ^ Kapstein, Matthew T. (2014). "Funeral customs". Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 99–100. ISBN 978-0-19-973512-9. LCCN 2013006676.
  2. ^ Huff, Dietrich (2004). "Archaeological Evidence of Zoroastrian Funerary Practices". In Stausberg, Michael (ed.). Zoroastrian Rituals in Context. Numen Book Series. 102. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 593–630. doi:10.1163/9789047412502_027. ISBN 90-04-13131-0. ISSN 0169-8834. LCCN 2003055913.
  3. ^ "Parsis take to cremation, solar desiccation of bodies". The Asian Age. 23 Dec 2017. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  4. ^ Markandya, Anil; Taylor, Tim; Longo, Alberto; Murty, M.N.; Murty, S.; Dhavala, K. (2008). "Counting the cost of vulture decline – An appraisal of the human health and other benefits of vultures in India" (PDF). Ecological Economics. 67 (2): 194–204. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.04.020. hdl:10036/4350. Vultures do not play a role spiritually per se, but are recognised for their practical utility in aiding the disposal of corpses. ... the solar concentrations will produce heat of 120 degrees Celsius, which is sufficient to turn a body into a skeleton in 3 days.
  5. ^ Hannon, Elliot (5 September 2012). "Vanishing Vultures A Grave Matter For India's Parsis". WBUR. Retrieved 2 February 2020. "To dehydrate the body faster, the trustees introduced solar concentrators to focus heat. But during the monsoon season, the solar concentrators don't work because of the clouds." The solution isn't perfect—the solar concentrators can only work on several bodies at a time—but it has helped keep the tradition alive.
  6. ^ Hannon, Elliot (5 September 2012). "Vanishing Vultures A Grave Matter For India's Parsis". WBUR. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  7. ^ Barber, Paul (1989). Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality. New York: Yale University Press. pp. 171–72. ISBN 0-300-04859-9.
  8. ^ Shaw, Garry (27 March 2015). "Stone-age Italians defleshed their dead". Science. AAAS. Retrieved 27 March 2015.
  9. ^ Hugh T. Harrington and Lisa A. Ennis. "'Mad' Anthony Wayne: His Body Did Not Rest in Peace". History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, vol. 1. pp. 211–12. Warner, Beers & Co., Chicago. 1884.
  10. ^ Interacting with the dead : perspectives on mortuary archaeology for the new millennium. Rakita, Gordon F. M. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2005. ISBN 0813028566. OCLC 60742129.CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. ^ Westerhof, Danielle (2008). Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England. Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1843834168.
  12. ^ a b Scott, G. Richard; McMurry, Sean (2014). "The Delicate Question: Cannibalism in Prehistoric and Historic Times". An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806185521.
  13. ^ "Beyond Stone and Bone » Criteria for Cannibalism". archive.archaeology.org. Archaeology Magazine. Retrieved 2018-06-06.