Don’t Leave Your Dead Behind! How ancient Bolivians took their dead wherever they went

Lime-covered hand and foot bones

Hand bones covered in quicklime. Credit: Scott C. Smith

The burial practices of settled populations are rich and varied. Some bury their dead in cemeteries, separate from the places where domestic activities are carried out, others under the floor of a family home. But what happens when you’re on the move? Do you leave your relatives behind? Or do you find a way to take them with you?

Archaeologists working in the foothills of the Andes have uncovered evidence of a mortuary complex where ancient Bolivians brought their deceased relatives and used quicklime to strip the flesh from their bones and turn them into easy-to-carry relics.

Discovering a factory for the dead

When they started digging a patch of earth near Khonko Wankane, a religious site in Bolivia, archaeologists didn’t expect to find anything exciting. This spot was a good distance from Khonko’s sunken temples, which at the time were thought to be the focal point of the site.

But this unpromising spot ended up yielding something quite incredible: a circular building whose floor was strewn with a rich and puzzling variety of artefacts.

khonko wankaneAmong them were nearly 1,000 teeth and small bones, primarily from the feet and hands and most of them covered in a thin layer of white plaster. There were also plaster-coated ceramic pots and plaster-coated tools made from llama bones. Nearby, a stone pillar with carvings depicting a human with defleshed ribs.

On top of that, the quicklime-water blend that makes up the plaster covering most of the artefacts has a notable property: it can help remove the tissue and fat from bones. Taken together, the evidence suggests people were using this place to deflesh their dead relatives. And judging by the absence of many particular skeletal elements, like arm, leg and skull bones, they were taking some of them away with them.

“Portable ancestors for a mobile population”

It’s not unusual for many early societies to process their dead in some way. In fact, defleshing remains was common, and populations often brought out their ancestors on particular occasions. But here in particular, it seems that the desired end products were clean, easy-to-carry relics that could have been taken on the road by people who revered the dead, but had a highly unsettled life. According to the study’s lead author Scott C. Smith, they were “portable ancestors for a mobile population”.

A little bit of chemistry to deflesh the bones

But the process of adding quicklime to water may not have been purely practical. Mixing the two lets off plenty of heat and gas, creating an impressive sensory experience. Modern indigenous communities in Bolivia conceptualise smoke, gas and mists as ways in which offerings are transmitted to the supernatural realm. This visceral, gaseous process of cleaning human remains to produce plastered bones may have been an integral part of transporting the deceased from this world to the next.

Khonko Wankane, it seems, became a prominent place in which mobile populations could prepare their relatives for the next stage of their journey, in more ways than one.

Sources: USA Today, or read the peer-reviewed paper in Antiquity.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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