In archaeology
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

 and anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

, the term, excarnation (also known as Defleshing), refers to the burial practice of removing the flesh and organs of the dead, leaving only the bones.

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.

Platform burial

Examples of the former include the Tibetan sky burial, Comanche
The Comanche are a Native American ethnic group whose historic range consisted of present-day eastern New Mexico, southern Colorado, northeastern Arizona, southern Kansas, all of Oklahoma, and most of northwest Texas. Historically, the Comanches were hunter-gatherers, with a typical Plains Indian...

 platform burials, and traditional Zoroastrian
Zoroastrianism is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of prophet Zoroaster and was formerly among the world's largest religions. It was probably founded some time before the 6th century BCE in Greater Iran.In Zoroastrianism, the Creator Ahura Mazda is all good, and no evil...

 funerals (see Tower of Silence). Similarly, the lack of known burials in the European Iron Age
Iron Age
The Iron Age is the archaeological period generally occurring after the Bronze Age, marked by the prevalent use of iron. The early period of the age is characterized by the widespread use of iron or steel. The adoption of such material coincided with other changes in society, including differing...

and the small fragments of bone found around their settlement sites has been explained by some archaeologists as an indicator of widespread excarnation involving leaving bodies on platforms for the birds to eat.

Archaeologists believe that, when carried out naturally, the body would be left on a woven litter or altar. When the excarnation was complete, the litter would be carried away from the site. Metatarsals, finger bones and toe bones are very small, so would fall through gaps in the woven structure or roll off the side. Thus, a site in which only small bones are found is a candidate for ritual excarnation.

Some Native American
Native Americans in the United States
Native Americans in the United States are the indigenous peoples in North America within the boundaries of the present-day continental United States, parts of Alaska, and the island state of Hawaii. They are composed of numerous, distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of which survive as...

 groups in the southeastern portion of North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

 practised deliberate excarnation in Protohistoric
Protohistory refers to a period between prehistory and history, during which a culture or civilization has not yet developed writing, but other cultures have already noted its existence in their own writings...


Other methods

Marks on some human bones imply that some prehistoric societies removed the flesh from the bones.

In the Middle Ages, excarnation was practiced 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
Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus was an explorer, colonizer, and navigator, born in the Republic of Genoa, in northwestern Italy. Under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, he completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean that led to general European awareness of the American continents in the...

. American General Anthony Wayne
Anthony Wayne
Anthony Wayne was a United States Army general and statesman. Wayne adopted a military career at the outset of the American Revolutionary War, where his military exploits and fiery personality quickly earned him a promotion to the rank of brigadier general and the sobriquet of Mad Anthony.-Early...

 also was subjected to a form of excarnation.

In modern Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

, where cremation
Cremation is the process of reducing bodies to basic chemical compounds such as gasses and bone fragments. This is accomplished through high-temperature burning, vaporization and oxidation....

 is predominant, it is common for close relatives of the deceased to transfer, with chopsticks the 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
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...

 and the funerary practice of cremation, the corpse was exposed in a manner very similar to the Tibetan sky burial. See Japanese funeral
Japanese funeral
A Japanese funeral A Japanese funeral A Japanese funeral (葬儀 sōgi or 葬式 sōshiki)includes a wake, the cremation of the deceased, a burial in a family grave, and a periodic memorial service. According to 2007 statistics, 99.81% of deceased Japanese are cremated...


Pre-contact Hawaiians also ritually defleshed the bones of high ranking nobles (ali'i) so that they could be interred in reliquaries for later veneration. Captain Cook
James Cook
Captain James Cook, FRS, RN was a British explorer, navigator and cartographer who ultimately rose to the rank of captain in the Royal Navy...

, who the Hawaiians had believed to be the god Lono
In Hawaiian mythology, the deity Lono is associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall, and music. In one of the many Hawaiian legends of Lono, he is a fertility and music god who descended to Earth on a rainbow to marry Laka. In agricultural and planting traditions, Lono was identified with...

, met this fate after his death.

Following the excarnation process, many societies retrieved the bones for burial.

Defleshing during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, defleshing was a mortuary procedure mainly used to transport human remains over long distances. Defleshing was only used by nobility. It involved removing skin, muscles, and organs from a body, leaving only the bones.
In this procedure, the head, arms, and legs are detached from the body. The process does leave telltale cuts on the bones. King Saint Louis IX of France
Louis IX of France
Louis IX , commonly Saint Louis, was King of France from 1226 until his death. He was also styled Louis II, Count of Artois from 1226 to 1237. Born at Poissy, near Paris, he was an eighth-generation descendant of Hugh Capet, and thus a member of the House of Capet, and the son of Louis VIII and...

 is said to having been defleshed by boiling his corpse until the flesh separated from the bones, not only to preserve his bones and to avoid further decaying of his corpse during the return from the Eighth Crusade
Eighth Crusade
The Eighth Crusade was a crusade launched by Louis IX, King of France, in 1270. The Eighth Crusade is sometimes counted as the Seventh, if the Fifth and Sixth Crusades of Frederick II are counted as a single crusade...

, but also to obtain relics.
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