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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.
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 removed from the site. Since metatarsals, finger bones and toe bones are very small, they would easily fall through gaps in the woven structure or roll off the side during this removal. 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.
Neolithic farmers living in Tavoliere, Italy over 7000 years ago practiced ritual defleshing of the dead. Light cut marks on the bones suggest 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.
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 underwent a form of excarnation.
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 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, 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.
Distinguishing excarnation from cannibalism
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. 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.'
- Shaw, Garry (27 March 2015). "Stone-age Italians defleshed their dead". Science. AAAS. Retrieved 27 March 2015.
- Hugh T. Harrington and Lisa A. Ennis. "Mad" Anthony Wayne: His Body Did Not Rest in Peace. http://www.americanrevolution.org/wayne.html, citing History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, vol. 1. pp. 211–2. Warner, Beers & Co., Chicago. 1884.
- Westerhof, Danielle (October 16, 2008). Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England. Boydell Press. ISBN 1843834162.