A flesh look at cannibalism

July 28, 2000

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote with horror of the cannibals of the Eurasian steppes, but a new study suggests he may have been doing them a disservice.

Eileen Murphy and Jim Mallory, archaeologists at Queen's University, Belfast, believe the maligned nomadic tribes may have been performing a practical funeral ritual that involved dismembering and removing the flesh from the dead.

"This process, which would have replicated many of the procedures one would have applied in the butchering of livestock, could have been mistaken for evidence of cannibalistic practices," Mallory said.

"It would have required very little embellishment by Herodotus to render a genuine funerary ritual into one of our earliest descriptions of cannibalism."

Herodotus wrote of several tribes that ate human flesh. Typical were the Issedones, a people of the southern Urals: "It is said to be the custom of the Issedones, that whenever a man's father dies, kin bring beasts of the flock, and having killed and cut up the flesh, they cut up also the dead father of their host and set out all the flesh mingled together for a feast."

Murphy spent three years analysing human remains recovered from the Iron Age cemetery of Aymyrlyg in Tuva, Siberia.

In research published in the journal Antiquity, she explains that many of the bones bore cut marks that seem to have come from removing the flesh from the cadavers.

There was no indication that bones had been smashed, roasted or boiled, while the team who excavated the site in the period1960-80, concluded the bodies had been buried semi-decomposed.

Murphy suggested this may be evidence of a burial practice. The burial ground was in a valley where the tribe would have lived during winter. The frozen earth was too hard to dig into, but the low temperatures would have permitted bodies to be stored ready for the spring thaw.

During summer, when the tribe was in the mountains, it would have been best to dismember cadavers - rather than allow them to decay naturally - so that they might be carried back to the burial ground when the tribe returned in autumn.

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