Excarnation may be precipitated through natural means, involving leaving a body exposed for animals to scavenge, or it may be purposefully undertaken by butchering the corpse by hand.
Examples of the former include the Tibetan sky burial, Comanche platform burials, and traditional Zoroastrian funerals (see Tower of Silence). Similarly, the lack of known burials in the European Iron Age and the small fragments of bone found around their settlement sites has been explained by some archaeologists as an indicator of widespread excarnation involving leaving bodies on platforms for the birds to eat.
Archaeologists believe that, when carried out naturally, the body would be left on a woven litter or altar. When the excarnation was complete, the litter would be carried away from the site. Metatarsals, finger bones and toe bones are very small, so would fall through gaps in the woven structure or roll off the side. Thus, when a site with a lot of small bones only is found, it is highly likely to be a site for excarnation.
Some Native American groups in the southeastern portion of North America practiced deliberate excarnation in Protohistoric times. Also, marks on some human bones imply that some prehistoric societies cut the flesh off the bones themselves.
In the Middle Ages, excarnation was practiced by European cultures as a way of preserving the bones when the deceased was of high status, or had died some distance from home. One notable example of a person who underwent excarnation following death was Christopher Columbus. American General Anthony Wayne also was subjected to a form of excarnation.
In modern Japan, where cremation is predominant, it is common for close relatives of the deceased to remove the bones from the ashes, transferring them to a special jar in which they will be buried. However, in ancient Japanese society prior to the introduction of Buddhism and the funerary practice of cremation, the corpse was left for a period of excarnation similar to the Tibetan sky burial. See Japanese funeral.
Following the excarnation process, many societies retrieved the bones for burial.