Throughout history a variety of cultures have removed single bones or portions of skeletons from tombs and graves. I have listed my top five reasons (in no particular order) given throughout history for removal of single bones.
1. Political Symbol, Removal of the Femur by the Zapotecs: Recently hypothesized by archaeologist Feinman, it is argued that the Zapotecs removed femurs from graves in order to use them as symbolic political staffs. A number of graves have been found missing the femurs. A number of friezes depict leaders and warriors holding femurs, which suggests removal was done with specific intent. The practiced lasted from the 6th to 16th century AD, and were often cut and painted for sceptre use (Keim 2011).
2. Tools, Neanderthals Used Human Bones as Tools: In Southwest France, a Neanderthal human bone tool has been unearthed recently. The tools consist of scrapers made from a human cranium which were carefully cleaned prior to use and show signs of retouching (flaking and percussion). Comparison against other human bones from the site argues for deliberate use due to patterning of the markings reflecting those on stone tools. The bones date to the Mousterian period, and are thought to be over 35,000 years old (Verna and D’Errico 2010).
3. Relics, Medieval Western European removal and trade of Saint’s bones: As mentioned in an earlier post, bones during the Medieval era in Europe were thought to have mystical properties of the Saints they belonged to. The bones were believed to be the earthly remains of the Saints, left with their healing powers to the living as a continuation of their good deeds. However, relics were not always what they appeared, and grave robbing is likely to have occurred. The better the bone (cranium was more highly valued than say a phalange), the more power could be derived from it. Check out my post on relics.
4. Land Ownership Claims, Pre-pottery Neolithic B removal of ancestral skulls in the Middle East: As discussed a couple weeks ago in a post on Kfar Hahoresh, skulls in the PPNB were removed from burials, covered in plaster, and used as literal evidence that your ancestors lived in that particular spot. It is hypothesized that this practice arose in response to the increased stress due to sedentism and agriculture. For more information, check out my post on it.
5. Ritual Purpose, Tibetan Buddhists Use of Cranium Cups and Bone Rosaries: In Tibet, the cranium is used both as a ritual drinking as vessel known as a kapala and as a way to learn more about the deceased individual through the study of the cracks and lines. Other bones may be used to create aprons or rosaries for use in religious ceremonies as a way to both venerate the dead and “prevent people from becoming too much addicted to worldly pleasures” (Laufer 1923).
Another ritual use of the skull is its use in the Christian-African syncretic religion of Palo Mayombe (similar to Santeria, but with increased use of human remains). Rites use a nganga or cauldron filled with a human skull, possible some human long bones, sacred stones, feathers, animal parts, herbs, and metal tools such as gardening or railroad implements. A number of police cases have involved investigations of grave robbers and this religion (www. homicidesquad.com)
And never fret… I am already started to compile the top 5 reasons to remove the whole body from the grave.
Keim. 2011. Lost Civilization Seen in Zapotec Thighbones. Wired Magazine. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/01/zapotec-thighbones/
Choi. 2010. Neanderthals fashioned tools from human bone. Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/history/Neanderthals-made-human-bone-tools-101215.html
Verna and D’Errico. 2010. Earliest Evidence for the Use of Human Bone as a Tool. Journal of Human Evolution 60(2): 145-157.
Laufer. 1923. Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet. http://www.scribd.com/doc/20903826/Laufer-Berthold-Use-of-Human-Skulls-and-Bones-in-Tibet
Homicide Squad. 2010. http://www.homicidesquad.com/images/palomayombe.htm