Thousands of ancient toad bones found in Western North Carolina were missing heads, sparking a strange mystery.
The curious specimens have been uncovered in mountainous sites that date back to the 1400s to 1800s, said Thomas R. Whyte, a professor at Appalachian State University.
At one site called Coweeta Creek, at least 17,000 toad bones were in a deposit, Whyte told McClatchy news group Wednesday.
Each discovery yielded few or no head bones, making it hard to explain how the animals could have ended up there naturally, he said.
The professor said he learned about one theory that Native Americans used the animals, many of which were from the anaxyrus species, for a “ritual purpose.”
So why were the toads headless?
Whyte, who teaches an experimental archaeology class, decided two years ago his students would take a closer look.
The group examined remains of toads that had died in window wells, Whyte said.
“It appears the toad head bones do decompose more quickly than the bones of the body” and that the heads are harder to identify, he said.
But he said another clue emerged.
“There is a recipe in a Cherokee cookbook for how to prepare toads for consumption that involves pulling off the head and pulling the entire skin off with the head,” he said.
The animals’ skin contains toxins that can make a person hallucinate, Whyte said.
His team “concluded the Cherokee at the Appalachian Summit site likely decapitated the toads where they were captured — probably in breeding ponds and puddles — then brought the carcasses back to the campfire for preparation,” according to Appalachian State.
“After eating, the bones were discarded in the pit — to be discovered centuries later,” the university said Monday in a news release.
For Whyte, thought-provoking artifacts can be found across time periods and locations.
“It’s also not about finding gold and museum specimens,” he said. “I get terribly excited when I find a deposit of toad bones because that raises interesting questions.”
The Coweeta Creek site is in present-day Macon County, north of the Georgia border and roughly 80 miles southwest of Asheville.