Ancient Bolivians Used Basic Chemistry To Strip Flesh From Human Bones

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Archaeologists working in the Titicaca Basin have discovered a mortuary used by ancient Bolivians to strip the skin from the remains of the dead. It appears they used calcium oxide – a substance more commonly known as quicklime – to to dissolve these bodies down to the bone.

The mortuary site, a religious complex known as Khonkho Wankane, was a space used by ritual specialists to process human remains. Corpses were cut into pieces and then cleaned and curated using the quicklime, which was procured by heating limestone. The quicklime, when exposed to air, covered the bones in calcium carbonate, or lime plaster. By boiling body parts in pots of quicklime, the flesh and fat became easier to remove from the bones.

This would have been quite dramatic, and an indelible part of the mortuary ritual itself. As the researchers write in their study:

The reaction produced by adding quicklime to water is a violent one, where heat is produced and gas is released. This would have been quite 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. Similarly, the visceral, gaseous process of cleaning human remains to produce plastered bones may have conveyed the deceased to the otherworldly realm.


So why did they do it? Traci Watson from USA Today explains:

The end product of that grisly work: relics that could easily be carried on the road by people who lived in the region more than a thousand years ago and seem to have had both a reverence for the dead and a highly unsettled lifestyle.

The process created "portable ancestors for a mobile population," said study co-author Scott C. Smith, an archaeologist at Franklin & Marshall College. The discovery shows "the dead still played an active and important role in the lives of the living."


As the researchers themselves put it, "The evidence suggests that during a time of heightened movement and circulation, Khonkho Wankane was propelled to prominence in part because of a ritual process of preparing human remains for a mobile agropastoral population."


Excavations at the site yielded a number of clues, including 1,000 teeth and small bones sheathed in a thin layer of white plaster, mostly from the feet and hands. The discovery of small blocks made from a white, chalky substance — likely the remnants of quicklime — indicated that the substance was used at the mortuary. The archaeologists also found body parts coated with the plaster, including a piece of skull, and an intact skeletal hand and foot.

Check out the scientific study at Antiquity. And be sure to read the entire USA Today post.


Images: Scott C. Smith