Researchers in Brazil have made a startling discovery - a decapitated head that dates back further than 9,000 years.
Decapitation is one of the more gruesome ways humans used to kill each other throughout history, but for a long time historians believed that it only happened in a few locations over a relatively short time window. According to a report from CBS News, however, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Scientists excavating a rock near a shelter in Brazil have uncovered evidence suggesting that human decapitation dates back much farther than once believed. The 9,000-year-old human remains make the discovery the oldest case of decapitation in the New World. Archaeologists still face the mystery of how and why the skull was removed from the rest of its body.
They discovered the skull with detached hands resting on the face, and believe the finding dates back to the Holocene era. Scientists lack a gruesome tale to go along with the discovery, however. The researchers, who published their findings in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday, think that the rearrangement of this person’s body parts was just a part of a strange burial ritual that was practiced by the hunter-gatherers who roamed the settlement that was named Lapa de Santo.
The previous earliest case of decapitation in the New World occurred in South America as well, but was believed to have happened just 4,000 years ago.
According to André Strauss, the leader of the international team of anthropologists that helped make the discovery, “This ritualized case of decapitation from Lapa de Santo attests to the early sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas.” He notes that they didn’t carry around many material objects or erect any elaborate structures, so they resorted to using the human body to express their beliefs about what might happen after life on Earth. The discovery also widens the range for where people that practiced decapitation may have wandered in South America. It expands the range for known decapitation sites by over 2,000 kilometers, proving that the phenomenon was not confined to the western hart of the continent as researchers previously believed. The body was just one of 37 skeletons uncovered at the site.
According to Domingo C. Salazar-Garcia, another investigator with the study who performed the isotopic analysis of the bones found at the site, strontium isotopes indicated that the individual most likely belonged to the group that inhabited the area at the time. He does not believe the individual was an enemy, and probably died before having his or her head removed.
What’s even more interesting is that the head was not chopped off – it was removed by rotating and pulling until it was detached from the spine. There was no evidence that the body had not been killed, but without the tools or weapons to carry out a murder, it seems unlikely. Salazar-Garcia explains that the people who passed through the site had no knives or guillotines, not even a crude axe. The extent of their tools were probably tiny razors and scraping instruments.
The research team believes that the decapitation was more likely a part of a larger set of rituals that prepared the dead for the afterlife, not unlike mummification in Ancient Egypt. The delicate placement of the hands over the skull’s face would have likely signaled a sense of remorse and helped the community remain resilient in the face of a loss.
People have been decapitated in South America for a long time, but usually in the context of a greater conflict. Heads and other limbs were taken as souvenirs of war, or as a sign of one group’s dominance over another. The study’s authors recalled a “few American habits that impressed the European colonizers more than the taking and displaying of human body parts, especially when decapitation was involved.”
Some of the decapitations described in the study are truly gruesome. Early South American societies often propped heads up out in the open for everyone to see for ceremonial purposes, and the Chimus people of Peru even involved the practice in human sacrifices. The Nazca, also from Peru, were often found with drill holes bored into the front of their skull and an enlarged foramen magnum, or the opening at the skull’s base. The eyes and mouth were sewn shut with spines and the head had carrying strings attached.
Decapitation is just a part of the bigger story of the peoples that lived in these regions thousands of years ago, Strauss said. On the most recent site, some skeletons were so well preserved that they can tell much more about what kind of religious burial rituals these people may have practiced.
“We are just lucky that we had this catchy finding to bring some attention to the site. But the site is much more than the decapitation.” Strauss says it seems as though the skeletons they discovered had just been buried the day before.
Currently, there is no other New World site where scientists have found skeletons so well preserved, with DNA evidence intact and a clear window into what life may have been like at the time. At Lagoa Santa, there are currently more skeletons dated back past 9,000 years than have been discovered in the entire United States.