9,000-Year-Old Skull May Hold Key To Ancient Funeral Rites In The Americas
A 9,000-year-old severed skull provides evidence that ceremonial beheadings were taking place in the Americas much earlier than researchers previously thought.
Academics had dated ritual decapitations in the New World to about 2,500 B.C., when some Andean civilizations wore the heads of enemies as trophies. But in 2007, researchers led by Dr. Andre Strauss of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found this skull — along with a pair of deliberately arranged severed hands — at a burial site at Lapa do Santo rock shelter in east-central Brazil. They don’t believe these pieces are related to the trophy-taking tradition.
The authors of a paper about the discovery, which was published Wednesday in PLOS One, say neither the skull nor hands show any signs of having been worn and that isotope analysis shows the remains belong to a member of the local Lapa do Santo group. This evidence, along with the way the remains were arranged, suggests that the owner of the skull wasn’t a trophy kill, but was involved in the custom of ancestor skull worship.
The grave didn’t have any goods or elaborate architecture, but researchers postulate that the way in which the hands were laid over the skull indicate some kind of ritual adornment.
“[In the absence of burial wealth] Lapa do Santo’s inhabitants seemed to use the human body to express their cosmological principles regarding death,” the authors write.
Ritual decapitation cults existed in the Middle East as early as 11,000 years ago, according to Science Magazine.
A map of the Lagoa Santa region, with dots marking other sites where early human skeletal remains have been found:
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