Four practical uses for human bones

Neolithic cranial amulets from Switzerland.  Photo credit: National Museum of Ireland.

Neolithic cranial amulets from Switzerland. Photo credit: National Museum of Ireland.

The human skeleton is the most enduring part of the human body because, when well-preserved, bones can survive thousands of years.  The skeleton tends to be treated with reverence and honor because it is recognizably human and is all that remains of the physical embodiment of the deceased.

Human bones are often kept by religious orders or family members as relics for veneration and remembrance because many cultures believe human remains retain the physical and spiritual essence of the deceased.   Bones are thought to possess supernatural powers, provide good luck, block evil spirits, or provide protection and are often kept as amulets, talismans, or trophies.

Cultures all over the world have some pretty ingenious ways of creatively re-using human bones.  Frequently human bones are carved and repurposed into jewelry, cups, musical instruments and weapons.

Jewelry:

Necklace made from hand and foot bones at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico.  Photo credit: from Travis on Flickr

Necklace made from hand and foot bones at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico. Photo credit: from Travis on Flickr

The Neolithic culture of Neuchâtel, Switzerland carved the cranial bones of their deceased into amulets.  In the early twentieth century cranial amulets were recovered from an archaeological site in Neuchâtel that are estimated to have been made around 3500 BC.  These Neolithic amulets oval and were perforated at one end, and the edges were finished and rounded.  Archaeologists have found similar amulets at sites in Port-Conty, La Lance and Concise, also in Switzerland (Flynn 2014)

Archaeologists have also unearthed trophy necklaces made from metacarpals, metatarsals, and hand and foot phalanges associated with cultures in the Plains, Great Basin, and Mexico.  This practice is related to warfare and gave warriors prestige because they were a symbol of victory (Owsley et al. 2007).

Cups

A carved ritual kapala or skull cup. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

A carved ritual kapala or skull cup. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Kapala, Sanskrit for “skull”, are ritual cups used in Buddhist and Hindu Tantric ceremonies.  These skull cups are sacred because of their ritual purpose not because they came from a holy person or ancestor.   Monks recover the crania used to carve kapala from sky burial sites or from bodies pulled from the Ganges River.  Once the remains are cleaned, monks will carve elaborate designs and decorate them with precious metals and jewels.

Tibetan monasteries use kapala to hold dough cakes or wine that are symbolic representations of flesh and blood as offerings to wrathful deities.  Kapalas are used in rituals like higher tantric meditation to achieve a transcendental state of thought and mind within the shortest possible time and to offer libation to the gods and deities to win their favor.

Musical Instruments

Tibetan "kangling" trumpet made from a human femur. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Tibetan “kangling” trumpet made from a human femur. Photo credit: Wikipedia

In Tibet, Buddhists play an instrument called a kangling, translated as “leg” (kang) “flute” (ling), it is the Tibetan name for a trumpet made from a human femur.  Tibetan Buddhists prefer to use the femur from the corpse of a criminal or a person who died a violent death, but in pinch the femur of a respected teacher may be substituted.  The kangling is used in Himalayan Buddhism during tantric rituals and funerals as a way of eliminating the attachments to the body and as a reminder that this physical existence is temporary.

The Aztecs used a notched percussion instrument known as a Omichicahuaztli in ceremonies.  Omichicahuaztli is a Nahuatl word, omitl means “bone” and chicahuaztli means “to beat.”  The Aztec preferred long bones like femur and tibia for these instruments.

Weapons

Archeologists working in Guam in the 1990’s found evidence that the indigenous people of the island, the Chamorros, used human bones to make barbed spear tips. Archaeologists who excavated a cemetery, that dates to between AD 1000 and AD 1521, unearthed barbed spear points made from human bones in two burials.  They found evidence that the Chamorros obtained the necessary bones from select portions of decomposed bodies, and preferred the long bones, like the tibia, fibula, and radius (McNeil 2002).

References:

Flynn, R. Two cranial amulets from Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Retrieved on March 16, 2014 from: http://www.museum.ie/en/list/documentationdiscoveries.aspx?article=45542186-e662-428c-88b0-b93378cf30ac

McNeil, J. (2002). Human spear points and speared humans: the procurement, manufacture and use of bone implements in prehistoric Guam. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. Retrieved on January 24, 2014 from: http://journals.lib.washington.edu/index.php/BIPPA/article/viewFile/11818/10446

Owsley DW, Bruwelheide KS, Burgess LE, and Billeck WT.  Human finger and bone necklaces from the Plains and Great Basin. (2007). In Chacon, RJ, Dye, DH.  The taking and displaying of human body parts as trophies by Amerindians.  New York: Springer.

Tolentino, D.  (2009). Ancient Chamorro use of human bones. Retrieved on March 16, 2014 from:  http://guampedia.com/ancient-chamorros-use-of-human-bones/



Categories: History

7 replies

  1. I am curious about the spear from indigenous peoples of Guam. Was that from a culture of cannibals, as many of those primitive island groups have been rumored to be? Why would a decomposing body be left lying about to make bone removal from the dead an acceptable practice?

    • I can’t speak to practices in Guam, but I can relate your 2nd question to the Hopewell culture, in southern Ohio 2000 years ago. Hopewell funerary objects often feature images of vultures. It has been hypothesized (fairly conjecturally) that deceased individuals might have been placed on very high raised platforms in the forest to be “given back to nature.”
      It is pretty much known that at lunar solstices/special days many families would gather at charnel houses to give the defleshed bones and/or cremated remains of their loved ones a burial.
      It seems rather “creepy” to us, the idea of processing the dead in such a way, but relativity is the key here I think. By burying their loved ones in communal places, families from distant places had opportunities to exchange marriage partners, strengthen social bonds, and create a landmark when a charnel house was turned into a mound. Since families had to travel to reach the place of burial, inhuming the entire body would have been impractical, and impossible if there was a long while between their death and the next pilgrimage.
      I hope this makes sense/seems relevant. I’m not trying to be gross/creepy. XD

      • Well thank you! So good of you to take the time to explain that. I didn’t know about Hopewell, per se…I know of some Native American customs…the platform etc. I’ll haave to check that out. Very Interesting! Thanks again!

      • Thank you Jocelyn! I’ve only done some shallow reading on the Chamorro culture and I haven’t read about any references to cannibalism so far. There are 2 schools of thought on the Chamorro using human bones for weapons, some think they were trophies taken from enemies, some think they are from ancestors or a mix of both.
        I also didn’t realize that some archaeologists suspect the Hopewell culture practiced sky burials.

      • The same dichotomy exists with the Hopewell. Since there’s no real evidence of violence/skeletal trauma in the Hopewell record it was probably ancestor veneration, though there are still a few holdouts, haha.
        I’m not sure if it’s completely accurate to say “sky burials” when talking about the Hopewell. The tricky thing is that not all individuals were prestigious enough to receive mound/earthwork burial, no one knows where “common folks” went when they died. So presumably only individuals receiving eventual mound burial would be defleshed (in the sky), but then we don’t have the picture on the whole culture so it’s hard to say for sure.

    • I lived on Guam for 14 years, and worked in archaeology the entire time. I have seen many Chamorro human bone weapons and tools, and in no case can cannibalism be attributed. My
      belief is that human bone taken from an enemy, or perhaps the femur of a relative who was a strong warrior, was the motive. Fish hooks were also made from human bone. Perhaps a very good fisherman.

  2. For a good example of this, look into the MoundsvilleWV burial Mound…across from historical moundsville penitentiary

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