“Memento Mori” engraving by Simon van der Passe after Crispyn van der Passe the Older (1612) (via Museum Boijmans-van Beunigen, Rotterdam)
The human skeleton is the most enduring part of the human body; when well-preserved, bones can survive thousands of years. The skeleton tends to be treated with reverence and honor because it is recognizably human and is all that remains of the physical embodiment of the deceased.
Human bones are often kept by religious orders or family members as relics for veneration and remembrance because many cultures believe human remains retain the physical and spiritual essence of the deceased. Bones are thought to possess supernatural powers, provide good luck, block evil spirits, or provide protection, and are often kept as amulets, talismans, or trophies.
Cultures all over the world have some pretty ingenious ways of creatively re-using human bones. Frequently human bones are carved and repurposed into jewelry, cups, musical instruments, and weapons.
Necklace made from hand & foot bones at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. (photograph by Travis/Flickr user)
The Neolithic culture of Neuchâtel, Switzerland carved the cranial bones of their deceased into amulets. In the early 20th century cranial amulets were recovered from an archaeological site in Neuchâtel that are estimated to have been made around 3500 BC. These Neolithic amulets were oval and perforated at one end, and the edges were finished and rounded. Archaeologists have found similar amulets at sites in Port-Conty, La Lance, and Concise, also in Switzerland.
Archaeologists have also unearthed trophy necklaces made from metacarpals, metatarsals, and hand and foot phalanges associated with cultures in the Plains, Great Basin, and Mexico. This practice is related to warfare and gave warriors prestige because they were a symbol of victory.
Human cranium prayer beads at the Rubin Museum, NYC (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
A carved ritual kapala or skull cup (via Wikimedia)
Kapala — Sanskrit for “skull” — are ritual cups used in Buddhist and Hindu Tantric ceremonies. These skull cups are sacred because of their ritual purpose, not because they came from a holy person or ancestor. Monks recover the crania used to carve kapala from sky burial sites or from bodies pulled from the Ganges River. Once the remains are cleaned, monks carve elaborate designs and decorate them with precious metals and jewels.
Tibetan monasteries use kapala to hold dough cakes or wine that are symbolic representations of flesh and blood as offerings to wrathful deities. Kapala are used in rituals like higher tantric meditation to achieve a transcendental state of thought and mind within the shortest possible time and to offer libation to the gods and deities to win their favor.
Tibetan “kangling” trumpet made from a human femur (via Wikimedia)
In Tibet, Buddhists play an instrument called a kangling, translated as “leg” (kang) “flute” (ling) — it is a trumpet made from a human femur. Tibetan Buddhists prefer to use the femur from the corpse of a criminal or a person who died a violent death for the instrument, but in pinch the femur of a respected teacher may be substituted. The kangling is used in Himalayan Buddhism during tantric rituals and funerals as a way of eliminating the attachments to the body and as a reminder that this physical existence is temporary.
The Aztecs used a notched percussion instrument known as a Omichicahuaztli in ceremonies. Omichicahuaztli is a Nahuatl word, omitl means “bone” and chicahuaztli means “to beat.” The Aztec preferred long bones like femurs and tibia for these instruments.
Kangling in the British Museum (photograph by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)
Human bone spear tips (via Dr. Judy Flores of the CNMI Historic Preservation Office)
Archeologists working in Guam in the 1990s found evidence that the indigenous people of the island, the Chamorros, used human bones to make barbed spear tips. Archaeologists who excavated a cemetery dating between 1000 AD and 1521 AD, unearthed barbed spear points made from human bones in two burials. They found evidence that the Chamorros obtained the necessary bones from select portions of decomposed bodies, and preferred the long bones, like the tibia, fibula, and radius.
Flynn, R. Two cranial amulets from Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Retrieved on March 16, 2014 from: http://www.museum.ie/en/list/documentationdiscoveries.aspx?article=45542186-e662-428c-88b0-b93378cf30ac
McNeil, J. (2002). Human spear points and speared humans: the procurement, manufacture and use of bone implements in prehistoric Guam. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. Retrieved on January 24, 2014 from: http://journals.lib.washington.edu/index.php/BIPPA/article/viewFile/11818/10446
Owsley DW, Bruwelheide KS, Burgess LE, and Billeck WT. Human finger and bone necklaces from the Plains and Great Basin. (2007). In Chacon, RJ, Dye, DH. The taking and displaying of human body parts as trophies by Amerindians. New York: Springer.
Tolentino, D. (2009). Ancient Chamorro use of human bones. Retrieved on March 16, 2014 from: http://guampedia.com/ancient-chamorros-use-of-human-bones/