The only evidence left of a mystery tribe is bodies in jars

Illustration for article titled The only evidence left of a mystery tribe is bodies in jars

A long lost Cambodian tribe has left only one trace behind, but it's a significant one. Human remains have been found in jars. The latest have been found about one hundred and sixty feet up a cliff.


The Cardamom Mountains hide an unappetizing secret. Scattered over the hills are bodies, or what remains of them, stored in jars. Some of the jars are just hollowed out logs with bones and teeth in their hollows. Others are more elaborate ceramic works, with skulls peeking out of the necks. They're always in the mountains, some perched on shelves that seem to be cut into the stone near the bottom of the mountain, and some are just barely pushed into the shelter of caves.

It's no question that it's a burial ritual. The highest of the bodies are placed one hundred and sixty feet up cliff sides, probably to keep them from being accessible to anyone but the most determined. The jars show signs of being part of a ritual, too. The bottom or each jar has a hole drilled into it, either to make it of no value to anyone other than as a burial vessel, or just to let fluids or any water that leaked in drain quickly.


The sites are dated as being from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, which means the occupants must have lived during the Khmer Empire, a powerful and unified society that dominated much of Southeast Asia. These people, however, don't show any signs of being part of that empire. Perhaps their life in the mountains kept them independent, or just practically separate from the people around them. Still, it means that all we know today about them comes from their sky burials. We may never know more about them. Perhaps, given the lengths they went to hide their dead, they would have wanted it that way.

Top Image: Cardamom Mountains at Sunset

Via National Geographic.

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Stephan Zielinski

"Sky burial" is usually interpreted to mean "Fed to birds." What we're talking about here is an example of "jar burial", which occurs (or at least used to occur) in a variety of cultures in Southeast Asia.

A bit from Metcalf & Huntington's Celebrations of Death, second edition ISBN 0-521-42375-9, page 136: "This account comes from H.G. Quaritch Wales (1931), and mainly concerns nineteenth-century Thailand, although these rites have also been employed in this century. ¶ After death is pronounced, the king's corpse is washed, dressed in fine clothes, and displayed briefly on a bier. Then it is folded with the knees drawn up under the chin, and inserted in a large golden urn. The urn is stored on a catafalque in a special hall of the palace for a minimum of 100 days, and usually much longer. Food is regularly placed before the king's urn. At the funeral of King Rama VI in 1925, the food was prepared by the king's own chef and served at his habitual mealtimes. The liquids of decomposition of the corpse are collected in a vase (also made of gold) below the urn (Wales 1931: 137-48.)"

If I recall correctly— college was a long time ago— my anthropology professor noted that jar-with-a-drain-hole is the same technology employed in the region to make a type of fish sauce. This led to a structural functionalist argument that the whole process symbolically transformed the uncivilized/raw crudity of death into a civilized/cooked post-mourning acceptance of the event.