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Digitally reconstructed skull of Context 758. Image from [1].

Digitally reconstructed skull in Context 758. Image from [1].

About 9000 years ago, a human was buried in an elaborate ritual that involves defleshing and separation of bones, crushing of the big bones and finally, cremation and burial. This happened in Palawan.

It is so far the best documented burial of this kind in Southeast Asia according to the authors of a recent paper in the International Journal of Osteoarchaelogy [1].

The bones of a human (probably a young adult to middle adult female) are found in Context 758. C.758 is uncovered underneath the rockshelter of the Ille Cave and Rockshelter Archaeological Site within the Dewil valley in Northern Palawan.  It is one of the excavated areas which has burial features. C.758 was the first to be analyzed completely.

Because the bones in c.758 are densely concentrated and are compactly clustered, the author suggests that the bones are placed in a box-like container that decomposed later on.

The fragments of bones in c.758 are well preserved and belonged only to a single person according to the paper. Dating of the bones showed that it is between 9000 to 9400 years old.

The complex ritual done by these people on their dead are deduced from the analysis of the bones. This provides a glimpse of the elaborate process.

There were cutmarks and scrape marks. Cutmarks were mostly located at the joints which indicated that people then had a knowledge on how to disarticulate the bones of a human body. Scrape marks showed that the bones were defleshed and the skull was skinned.

After defleshing, the bigger bones were hammered. The skinned and defleshed skull, the thigh bone, the shinbone and the arm bones were smashed with probably a hammerstone on an anvil.

The bones were then collected for cremation. The temperature was probably high enough for calcination to occur but there are variations in the burn marks which need further analysis.

The bone fragments after cremation were collected, probably cleaned and placed in a container before the burial.  Myra Lara, the first author of the paper said, “We really do not have a way of knowing whether they were cleaned; the assumption was made only because there were not much charcoal included in the assemblage.”

Did the people eat their dead?

It´s hard to say. According to the authors:

Having an elaborate ritual does not mean that cannibalism did not happen. “The ritual indicates a sophistication in their expression of their cosmology,” says Dr. Victor Paz.  He adds, “Now regarding what happened to the flesh, this is anyone´s guess.”

Myra has a more detailed answer.

She says, “We do not discount cannibalism (we have no way of knowing what they did to the flesh) but only prefer another explanation (mortuary ritualistic behavior) to account for the modifications made on the remains.

“Inferring cannibalism is such a contentious issue in archaeological discourse. While other researchers might readily infer cannibalism from the modifications in C.758, we prefer to tread with caution and infer the minimum, which is a mortuary ritual.

“This means that, while consumption (or some consumption) of the remains might have occurred, for us the modifications are not enough to deduce this. If in case we see human gnaw marks on other remains, then that will change the story.”

The answer will be soon (I hope).

According to Dr. Paz, they have seven excavated cremations that are under various stages of analysis already.

According to the authors, this ritualistic burial is a rare find in the Philippines. This is the only cremation cemetery of this age so far.

This is just the second archaeological cremation burial in the country. The first can be found in Pila, Laguna where human remains are said to have been cremated in the 13th to 14th century CE (AD). Note the gap between the years. 9000 years ago is 7000 BCE (BC).

There results, the authors write, “demonstrates that, as elsewhere in the region (Southeast Asia), complex cremation practices are one part of the burial rituals of foraging peoples in the Early Holocene (11 000 – 8000 years ago).”

Reference:

[1] Lara, M., Paz, V., Lewis, H., & Solheim, W. (2013). Bone Modifications in an Early Holocene Cremation Burial from Palawan, Philippines International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2326 (published online ahead of print)

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