An international study points out that excavating the dead was standard practice in megalithic societies 5000 years ago.
The research, led by the University of Granada, indicates that human remains could have been considered ancient relics by megalithic builders some 5,000 years ago and used as a means of marking and maintaining important interpersonal relationships.
A study by researchers from the University of Granada, Tübingen (Germany), and the Center for Environmental Research of the Scottish Universities (SUERC) has shown that megalithic graves were not only burial places but that it was also common to unearth bone remains for use in other social practices.
The researchers point out that the presence of human skeletal remains among the living must have been a common practice in megalithic societies, and these remains may have been considered relics used as a means of marking and maintaining important interpersonal relationships.
For example, many tombs may have been recognized as remains of ancestors or notable people for the community.
Tombs and burial chambers constructed of large stone slabs known as megaliths were a common funeral practice for more than 2,500 years in much of Western Europe.
Traditionally, it had been assumed that these sites were collective burials, possibly those of entire families, where the deposition of different individuals took place over long periods of time until they formed authentic ossuaries, where remains that intermixed the anatomical connection with others that already had been lost.
The recent excavation works carried out in the megalithic necropolis of Panoría (Darro, Granada), coordinated by the University of Granada, allowed the in-depth study of how these ossuaries were formed and what ritual practices generated them.
Specifically, the so-called burial 10 of this necropolis presented an anthropological deposit in excellent condition with more than 11,000 human bones, most of them fragmented, mixed, and superimposed on each other.
However, together with these remains, complete individuals or anatomical parts in an articulated position were also recorded, indicating that individuals were buried in the grave shortly after death, while they still preserved the tissues and ligaments that maintained the articulated bones.
The study of bone remains has shown the presence of people of both sexes and of all ages.
“Furthermore, all the skeletal parts were represented, although surprisingly the presence of small and fragile bones, such as the bones of the feet, hands, vertebrae or ribs, was high,” explains Gonzalo Aranda Jiménez, a researcher at the Department of Prehistory and Archeology at the University of Granada and main author of the study.
These bones tend to disappear due to their spongier nature that withstands the chemical conditions of the soils where they are deposited, the pressure of the sediments, or the fragmentation during the reuse of the tomb.
“Usually, these bones appear underrepresented against skulls and longer bones (such as the femur, humerus, tibia, fibula, radius, or ulna, among others). The high presence of small and/or fragile remains suggested as a possible cause the extraction or selection of a part of the bone ensemble,” says Aranda.
To analyze how this set of skeletal remains formed, the researchers used radiocarbon 14 dating with the aim of establishing the date of death of the different people deposited inside the grave.
For this, researchers chose two types of remains that’s were used in the dating: femurs and teeth.
Teeth were chosen for dating due to their small size, good preservation resulting from their high mineral content, and the fact that they easily detach from the jaws once skeletal decomposition begins.
The comparison between the dates of femurs and teeth allowed scientists to distinguish whether the death date of the people they belonged to was similar or whether they belonged to different and distant funeral events instead.
The dates obtained on femurs showed that the grave had been used for a short period of time, for a few decades around 2500 BC, about 4500 years ago.
However, the dating on teeth revealed much older dates.
The beginning of the funeral activity, according to the skeletal remains, would take place the tombs between 2490–2470 BC, but according to the radiocarbon dating of the teeth, this was between 3230-3125 BC, which is about 700 years apart.
According to the date of death provided by the teeth, therefore, the funerary activity began some 5,200 years ago and not 4,500 years, as evidenced by the skeletal remains.