Capsian burials and dismemberment of the dead.

Cutmarks on Capsian Human Remains: Implications for Maghreb Holocene Social Organization and Palaeoeconomy


Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

 In 1930, the remains of five adults, one subadult, and one infant were excavated from Site 12, a ca. 8000 BP Capsian escargotie` re in Algeria. Recently, cutmarks were found on several postcranial bones of each of the adult individuals. In an attempt to reconstruct the burial ircumstances, archival materials including photographs and field notes were retrieved from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and the Logan Museum at Beloit College, and a detailed study of the cutmarks was carried out.

The cutmarks are associated mostly with long bones and skulls, while two individuals show cutmarks on the thorax. Using theories relating secondary burial practices to a nomadic lifestyle, it is hypothesized that the individuals died away from camp. Initial preparations, while awaiting transport to Site 12, involved limited exposure, followed by decapitation, dismemberment, and possibly defleshing of the thorax and removal of the internal organs. At Site 12, a formal burial ceremony was conducted during which red ochre was used. In some cases the dismembered extremities were placed in the grave with the rest of the body, but several skulls and long bones are missing. It is not known what the missing bones were used for, although Capsian groups are known for modifying human bones for either utilitarian or ritual purposes.

This is the first time that cutmarks on human remains are reported for this area and period. The idea that Capsian people practiced decapitation and dismemberment has been suggested before, based on  observations on other sites, however. Studies of human skeletal material from the Maghreb, often excavated decades ago, may therefore reveal similar types of evidence. It is suggested that such studies will contribute significantly to our understanding of Holocene Maghreb burial practices, and our ability to reconstruct social organization and palaeoeconomy.


The cutmarks

Table 1 summarizes the findings regarding the cutmarks and deposition anomalies for each of the individuals. A more detailed description of the cutmarks is presented in Table 2 and the general anatomical location of the cutmarks is shown in Figure 6. From this figure it is clear that each individual was treated in a different way, although there is a general tendency for the cutmarks to be concentrated in the cervical
region and around joints, suggesting decapitation and (partial) dismemberment. In addition, skeletons 3A-6 and 3A-7 show marks in different areas of the thorax. The cutmarks are more fully discussed below. The pattern of missing skeletal elements is also shown in Figure 6, which very strongly suggests intentional removal of skulls and long bones.


The crania from individuals 3A-6 and 3A-7 are missing, while the skulls and mandibles for individuals 3A-1 and 3A-5 were found to the side of the body, indicating that there was a special significance to skulls. Because separation of the skull with the atlas and some limbs is described as generally occurring relatively early during natural disarticulation (Haglund, 1991), the cutmarks associated with exactly these skeletal elements indicate that the skulls and long bones were obtained shortly after death.

The posterior location of the marks on the atlas of 3A-2 and 3A-5 (Figures 7–9), and the anterior location of the marks on the axis of 3A-2 and 3A-6 (Figures 10 and 11) indicate that severing of the muscles and ligaments to separate the skull from the vertebral column was done from both sides by drawing the knife across the tissues repeatedly, leaving several marks on the bone. It is possible that, while the ligaments around these vertebrae were cut, accidental marks were made on the ramus of the mandible. For Site 12, all the cutmarks associated with decapitation have been observed on C1 and C2 and seem to have been made with a sharp tool.

Another ‘bookmarked’ pdf for the files.

Decapitation seems to be a common theme along the Mahgreb and into the levant, with decapitation and decoration of skulls seen in ancient Southern Turkey and Jericho. These cultures also occasionally yanked out the front teeth, a cultural behaviour going back to the Oranian culture. The main reason for this dismemberment seems to have been ‘defleshing ‘ the body so it could be carried back to a burial site at a later date, maybe as some kind of funerary ritual or just for practical purposes. Possibly to flesh was removed to prevent wild animals disturbng the graves. It’s interesting that one skull mentioned had a false tooth in it, apparently inserted post mortem.

The Capsian people were probably the descendants of the first agriculturalist/pastoralists that moved out of the Southern Turkey area, with a more ancient ancestry from the earlier ‘Mechtoid’ people, who seem to have migrated into North Africa from Eurasia about 30,000 years ago. Their skulls are described as generally being ‘proto-Mediteranean’, with gracile bones. They are the ancestors of modern Berbers, whose DNA shows a continuity of about 30,000 years in North Africa.

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