Termites Sometimes Feed On Buried Human Remains

January 10, 2018 | Posted In: Georgia Pest & Termite Control

Termites Sometimes Feed On Buried Human Remains

Generally speaking, people do not find termites to be interesting insects. In fact, termites are not well represented in scientific studies or academic articles. So even scientists cannot help but to find termites boring. Due to the relatively small amount of termite-related studies in existence, there is still much about termite behavior that is unknown. It is well understood that termites consume cellulose in wood and plant matter. It is assumed that termites do little else but search for wood. This is certainly not true, as most termites consume certain forms of matter that do not contain cellulose. For example, at least four out of the seven termite families that exist today love to eat the bones of long buried dead people. The very first study concerning osteophagic (consuming bones) termite behavior was published over a century ago in 1911. Since then this topic has only been briefly mentioned in a small number of scientific publications.

Human skeletal remains that show signs of termite activity have been unearthed in South America, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Asia and North America. The most recent case involves skeletal remains that were excavated in Peru. The skeletal remains were well preserved and showed clear signs of termite damage. In addition to that, mud tunnels were found near the burial site. Subterranean termites forage through tunnels beneath the ground. This clearly suggests that subterranean termites once fed on these particular skeletal remains. This case of osteophagic termites in Peru is far from being the only one.

Vast networks of termite mud tunnels have been found near Egyptian and Nubian graves. Several skeletal remains in these regions revealed the past presence of osteophagic termites. Skulls always show the greatest amount of termite damage. One particular skull contained a dense network of termites tunnels. In Upper Maranoa a hollow cylindrical object made from tree bark was found at an ancient grave site. This cylinder once contained an infant. The cylinder remained intact but the infant’s skeletal remains had been completely devoured by termites. The presence of a termite nest within the cylindrical coffin confirmed that termites had consumed the infants skeletal remains.

Since several types of beetles are well known for damaging skeletal remains, archaeologists have always assumed that beetles were responsible for insect-induced bone damage. Since archeologists generally don’t recognize termites as osteophagic insects, their observations concerning the levels of skeletal degradation could often be erroneous. Furthermore, entomologists may be underestimating the diversity of food sources that are sought out by termites. Termites likely feast on bones in order to meet their diet’s nitrogen requirements. Termites receive very little nitrogen from the cellulose in wood and plant matter.  For termites that forage beneath the ground, buried skeletal remains offer an accessible and convenient source of nitrogen.

Do you think that subterranean termites feast on the skeletal remains of the dead frequently?