Looking for the vulture assist with Neolithic burials

1 minute read

The archaeological site of Çatalhöyük, in present-day Turkey, is one of the most significant early Neolithic villages to have been excavated. It was occupied between around 7100 and 6000 BC, and at its height was occupied by more than 3500 people. An array of human skeletal remains have been found at the site. Many of them were buried in the floors of houses in flexed pit burials.

One interesting aspect of the burials is that many were in an extremely flexed position. Legs were tucked against the chest in a tight position that seems anatomically unlikely if flesh had been on the skeletons at the time they were buried. This has given rise to the hypothesis that the bodies had been defleshed in some way before they were buried.

Marin Pilloud and coworkers in 2016 published a paper suggesting that the Çatalhöyük bodies were possibly defleshed by vultures. A brief excerpt from the conclusion gives the gist of their argument:

The burial practices at Çatalhöyük (i.e., removal of cephalic extremity, limb removal, tight flexion) as observed in the archaeological record are often consistent with some manner of flesh removal prior to interment. It seems possible based on current forensic experimental work that the people of Çatalhöyük may have employed vulture excarnation prior to interment. Based on human studies, vultures are unlikely to leave marks on the bone that would be visible 9000 years later.

It’s an interesting concept. The paper goes into some of the symbolic meanings of vultures and the possibility that bodies were exposed on the roofs of residences for vultures to approach.