9,000 Year Old Ritual Decapitation

Occasionally in the life of some archaeologists there must come moments when they feel like they are excavating the aftermath of a particularly gruesome horror movie. The recent discovery of a severed head and hands from east-central Brazil is a case in point.

The research was performed by an international team, led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany and focused on a body known as Burial 26. Burial 26 was first discovered back in 2007 inside a rock shelter at Lapa do Santo in Brazil. The area of Lapa do Santo is an extremely important archaeological site and has produced numerous finds, including human remains, over the years with current evidence suggesting it was first inhabited by humans around 12,000 years ago. Using accelerator mass spectrometry the team were able to confidently date Burial 26 to around 9,000 years ago. The specimen itself comprised of the skull, with articulated jaw, and the first six of the body’s cervical vertebrae. The left and right hands, presumably of the same individual, had also been cut off and placed over the skull in a highly ceremonial way. The right hand was placed covering the left side of the skull with the fingers pointing towards the chin whilst the left hand covered the right side with its fingers pointing towards the forehead. The placement seemed highly specific and likely had deep ritual significance to whomever buried Burial 26.

Diagram representing how and where Burial 26 was found. Credit: Drawing by Gil Tokyo.

There have been many cultures across the world, and across time, which had practised ritual decapitation. Be it as a trophy, execution or symbol of military dominance the removal of body parts, and particularly heads, from dead enemies is hardly unique or even especially unusual in the history of mankind. The Americas are no different and there is a surprisingly good historic and archaeological record of the phenomena. Before this discovery the previous oldest example of decapitation in South America was from around 3,000 years ago at a site in the Andean region of Peru. In fact all other archaeological examples in South America so far had come from the Andes and this alone would make Burial 26 very unusual and very important.

Now you might think that this find wouldn’t give archaeologists much to go on, after all you can’t perform much of an autopsy on a 9,000 year body without the actual body, but you would be wrong. Whilst we can’t know exactly what killed Burial 26 we do know a surprisingly amount about him, including the fact that he is a ‘him’. Its quite hard to judge gender of a human skeleton, especially if the pelvis isn’t preserved, but in this case measurements of the skull all had values indicative of a male, and judging by the pattern of wear on his teeth he was still quite young when he died. This would be consistent with many victims of ritual decapitation who tend to be young and male. There is also some evidence of how exactly the decapitation was carried out. In parting head from body the decapitator had left a number of v-shaped cuts on the vertebrae and mandible, and there were fractures suggesting that quite a bit of manual force had been used to hyperextend the neck after cutting. The cuts to the jaw implied that the skull still had flesh on it when it was being removed as this damage would be consistent with someone cutting through the floor of the mouth and the pharynx. Altogether this suggests a scenario where the neck was only partially cut through, including the soft tissue, and the skull was then ‘pulled’ off the spine.

The most surprising thing about Burial 26 though was revealed by a strontium isotope analysis of his teeth. This technique is used to work out where a person grew up because as we grow, drinking the local water and eating local food, specific ratios of the isotopes of strontium build up in our teeth. They’re harmless during our lifetime but after we die they leave a chemical fingerprint behind which archaeologists can compare to known patterns from different geographical locations. In many cases of ritual decapitation the victim is a captured enemy which would make sense given Burial 26’s age and sex but the results were surprising. Burial 26 wasn’t a captured enemy, he had grown up locally, or certainly spent his childhood there suggesting he would have been related to the people who decapitated and buried him.

So what can we conclude from all this? The highly ritualistic nature of the burial could suggest it was meant for display but equally we have no other evidence of that. The strontium isotopes suggest he was a local boy, and because of the lack of a body we can’t tell what he died of, or whether it was the decapitation itself which killed him. Also although it is intuitive to think that this was a gruesome act of desecration that might not have been the case. It is possible that this find represents an elaborate burial ritual meant to honour the dead, possibly even as a form of ancestor worship which would not be unprecedented in the region. Either way it does prove that ceremonial decapitation in prehistoric South America was not limited to the Andean regions and that the peoples of Brazil had equally sophisticated practises.

Reference: Strauss, A. et al. 2015. The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil). Plos One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0137456

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