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Cave of bones makes a macabre playground for Myanmar villagers

CHIN, Myanmar — At the cragged peak overlooking Parte village in Myanmar’s mountainous Chin state, mounds of human bones spill from the mouth of a small cave.

Pieces of spinal column are scattered on the dirt among sun-bleached hip joints, femurs, ribs and jawbones, which have a few yellowing teeth still sitting in their sockets.

Every body part is represented in large numbers among the clutter, but there are surprisingly few skulls. It is as if most of the dead had their heads lopped off before being left here. But in fact the real explanation far more bizarre.

"We used to roll the skulls down the hill to see who could get theirs furthest," said one elderly man with a chuckle as he leant on his staff-like walking stick and gestured up at the cave from the doorstep of his hillside house.

People have been using the cave and its skeletons as a macabre playground for decades. The remains belong to their pre-Christian ancestors, who practiced animist beliefs until the village converted at the end of WWII.

It's unclear why the forefathers of Parte left their dead at the peak of the hill. A possible explanation is that the state's pre-Christian religions involved the worship of natural landmarks like large trees and rocks.

The fragments of skull dotted along the path up to the cave are testament to the popularity of the skull rolling game. But other pastimes include banging a pair of arm or leg bones against a rock like drumsticks.

“Some of the kids try and scare each other with the skulls, or they’ll get the legs and make music,” said Lian Sang, the village’s chieftain. "Sometimes they try and break the bones with their hands.”

Anywhere between 200 and 400 bodies were left in this and three other caves nearby.

In the pre-war days, funeral rites involved getting way too drunk and carrying the body on a stretcher up the hill. Mourners would sing and dance as they climbed before laying the deceased to rest.

In comparison, the more recently deceased are entombed in the village’s Christian cemetery, where their remains are treated with more of the sanctity you'd expect in a graveyard.

According to Lian Sang, the people of Parte are not irked with treating the cave's bones so casually because no one knows exactly who they belong to, and therefore don't feel a familial connection to them. “There are no written records, because our ancestors were illiterate,” he explained.

It may seem disrespectful to chuck skulls down a hill or bang leg bones against rocks, but Western societies have their own ways of interfering with remains, points out Dr. Duncan Sayer, an associate at the Centre for Death and Society at the U.K.’s University of Bath.

“We build on the cemeteries of our dead quite a lot don’t we?” he said. “We build railway lines on the top of them, we excavate them and study them and that’s just our way of revisiting those people and those remains … so it’s sort of similar except that perhaps there’s less fun attached to it.”

He added: “It’s difficult for us to judge what other societies do with their own dead … they are their ancestors so really it’s their choice.”

As we trudged up the steep path to the cave, I thought about the ethical implications of reporting on human remains. We should be sure not to disturb anything while taking pictures, I decided; we should leave no trace.

Then I heard a shout. Standing on a ridge above me was Tun Lian, one of our Chin guides, proudly thrusting a skull into air. Later he and his colleague, Amen, held the jawbones up to their faces before rearranging them into neat rows on a rock.

It was hard to discern anything sinister in all this. If anything, there is something refreshing about people responding to death with play, rather than fear or revulsion.

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