Guest Post: Michael Monzon on “Puparious” Predicament: Examining Human Funeral Rites Using Insect Evidence

Insect Pupa found on a human bone

Michael Monzon is a PhD student in the Department of Entomology at Rutgers - New Brunswick.  Michael is in the early stages of examining soil recovered from the body cavities of individuals recovered from Arch Street to see which, if any, insect remains are present and can be identified.  Modern archaeological investigations incorporate various types of physical evidence. Human burial sites provide a unique array of insect evidence for interpretation. This article is the second in a two-part series on archaeoentomology -- the intersection of Forensic Entomology and Archaeology. To read the first article, please go here.

“Puparious” Predicament: Examining Human Funeral Rites Using Insect Evidence

By Michael Monzon, Rutgers - New Brunswick

Entomologists and physical anthropologists interpret insect evidence from archeological funeral sites to provide facts about the environment and funerary practices during the time period being investigated. For a long time many investigators had relied on pollen analysis, called palynology, to glean information about ancient and paleo environments. Entomologists interpreting insect evidence from archaeological sites around the world have provided researchers with supporting facts regarding human funeral practices for many years now but is still a very limited field with only a handful of experts globally. In this part two of our series on archaeoentomology a closer look will be taken at funerary archaeoentomology, and what insect evidence can tell modern scientists about past peoples’ final rites.  

For many years pollen was used as an indicator of environmental conditions in archaeological investigations (Elias, 1994). While indistinguishable to the naked eye pollen grains are highly sculpted when viewed under a microscope (Weber, 1998). These surface features allow scientists known as taxonomists to identify the type, and sometimes species of plant which made the pollen (Weber, 1998). While wind dispersal and pollinators can allow a plant to passively spread its pollen very far, a plant is still limited by the fact that they are not mobile like most animals are. Most insects, on the other hand, are highly mobile. Some geologists who study ancient insects have argued that an insect’s ability to change locations to find its most preferred habitat allows insects to be a more reliable indicator of past environments when compared to palynology (Elias, 2004).

The funeral rites of some ancient cultures are believed to have exploited that mobility and certain insects’ ability to seek out preferred environments. The Moche were an ancient civilization in the high plains of South America in what is known today as the Huaca De La Luna region of Peru. Excavations of Moche burial sites have indicated that many of the human remains may have been intentionally exposed to open air for an extended period of time (Huchet, 2010). Certain insect species, specifically the Secondary Screw-worm Cochliomyia macellaria  (an early-stage decomposer) and the Hide beetle Omorgus suberosus (a later-stage decomposer) had indicated that the remains may have first been left out to be exposed to the elements, before being re-exposed when new remains would be added to cave-tombs. Like many insects, flies and beetles go through complete metamorphosis meaning they begin life as a larva, like a maggot or caterpillar, before entering a pupa phase, like a cocoon. The placement and abundance of both the Secondary Screwworm and Hide Beetle pupae at the Huaca De La Luna Moche site indicate that both species were present or arriving on a continuous basis (Huchet, 2010). These pupae supported other facts which lead researchers to conclude the Moche funerary rite involved the same tomb being opened several times over long periods of time.

Beyond the environmental indicators pointing to an extended period of exposure, insect-related artifacts provided another angle of analysis. Pottery recovered from the site were painted with motifs depicting scenes where flies lay in wait for individuals to die (Huchet, 2010). One striking vignette appears to show a ritual sacrifice with flies participating in a “dance macabre” and in the next panel the same flies appear to be taking the individual to the afterlife (Huchet, 2010). The combination of repeated insect-motifs in art and the consistent insect evidence associated with the human remains indicated to researchers that flies may have played kind of esoteric role in Moche cosmology (Huchet, 2010).  

The insect-related artifacts documented by researchers of funerary archaeoentomology may also be unintentional. Mourning rituals have long included the placing of trinkets and objects of significance in the funerary receptacle with the deceased (Huchet, 2014). Metal artifacts such as coins and clothing-adornments have been documented to sometimes retain imprints of insects, specifically adult beetles. It is believed that a chemical reaction occurs between the metal and substances in the insect exoskeleton such as chitin, a protein. A mineralization results in an imprint which has allowed some entomologists to make preliminary identifications (Huchet, 2014).

Biofacts are similar to artifacts but are unintentional and naturally occurring. While some pathological conditions can be detected in skeletal remains, biofacts created by insects on human bone may look similar at first. The subterranean feeding on bone by some beetle and termite species may be difficult to differentiate from osteopathological conditions without close examination (Zanetti, 2015) (Huchet, 2013) (Huchet, 2014).

At the turn of the century archaeoentomological investigations relied solely on morphological identification, meaning insect taxonomists would determine the insect’s family or genus from a visual examination of the physical features of the insect (Panagiotakopulu, 2001). While this is standard for identification of modern insects, insects found in archaeological contexts are rarely found whole. Fragments of fly pupae and the disarticulated limbs and exoskeleton-plates of beetles are all archaeoentomologists typically have to examine (Elias, 2009) (Panagiotakopulu, 2012). The advent of cost effective high-throughput Next Generation genetic sequencing has opened the door to genetic identification of ancient insects. Recently entomologists were able to genetically identify a 106-year-old beetle specimen from a museum collection (Sproul, 2017). While still rarely possible advances in molecular technologies may soon mean genetic identification of ancient insect specimens is the standard.


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