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Excarnation may be precipitated through natural means, involving leaving a body exposed for animals to scavenge, or it may be purposefully undertaken by butchering the corpse by hand.
Practices making use of natural processes for excarnation are the Tibetan sky burial, Comanche platform burials, and traditional Zoroastrian funerals (see Tower of Silence). Similarly, the lack of known burials in the European Iron Age and the small fragments of bone found around their settlement sites has been explained by some archaeologists as an indicator of widespread excarnation resulting from having left bodies on platforms for the birds to eat.
Archaeologists believe that in this practice, people typically left the body exposed on a woven litter or altar. When the excarnation was complete, the litter with its remains would be carried away from the site. Metatarsals, finger bones and toe bones are very small, so would easily fall through gaps in the woven structure or roll off the side. Thus, a site in which only small bones are found is suggestive of ritual excarnation.
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.
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. The American Revolutionary War general, Anthony Wayne, also was subjected to a form of excarnation.
In modern Japan, where cremation is predominant, it is common for close relatives of the deceased to transfer, with chopsticks, the remaining bones from the ashes to a special jar in which they will be buried. 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. See Japanese funeral.
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 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.
Defleshing during the Middle Ages
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, avoid decaying of the remains during their return to France from the Eighth Crusade, and to allow obtaining relics. The process is known as mos Teutonicus.