Ancient History Mortuary That Boiled, Defleshed Corpses Unearthed

Nearly 2,000 years ago, trade caravans and llama drovers crisscrossed the foothills of the Andes Mountains near the southern shores of Lake Titicaca in present-day Bolivia. Among the sporadic outposts frequented by the nomads was the religious and political center of Khonkho Wankane, and a new study published in the current issue of the journal Antiquity reveals that the itinerant populations who frequented the settlement between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500 once brought their dead in tow so that the corpses could be ritually processed into more portable pieces for burial elsewhere.

The article, written by Franklin & Marshall College archaeology professor Scott C. Smith and colleague Maribel PĂ©rez Arias of the University of Pittsburgh, details their unexpected find at Khonkho Wankane. The archaeologists unearthed the remnants of a circular, stone-and-adobe structure in the center of the settlement along with 972 human bones from at least 25 individuals strewn across the floor.

Outside of the intact bones of one hand and one foot, the majority of the human remains they discovered were scattered teeth and small bones, mostly from the hands and feet. Examinations determined that the majority of the bones came from adults older than 25 years of age. A thin layer of white plaster covered the remains, and most showed evidence of having been painted with red pigment. The archaeologists found ceramic pots and four tools sculpted from llama bones that were also coated by the same white plaster.

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