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Scientists Discover 9,000-Year-Old Case of Decapitation in the Americas

Off with their head and hands

(André Strauss via PLOS One)
smithsonian.com

Scientists announced this week that a human skull found in a Brazilian cave might be the oldest evidence for ritual decapitation found in the western hemisphere.

Back in 2007, archaeologists on a dig in a limestone cave north of the central Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte uncovered a 9,000-year-old skull buried only about two feet below the surface  under limestone slabs. The site, known as Lapa do Santo, has been long known to have housed humans dating back 12,000 years. However, as announced this week, the skull could be the oldest-known example of a burial ritual centered around the beheading of the deceased in the Americas, Mary Beth Griggs writes for Popular Science.

While burial sites in the Andes are rife with evidence of skull worship and decapitation for trophy purposes, the oldest beheaded remains previously reported were about 3,000 years old. The new find, on the other hand, pushes that back by about 6,000 years and appears to have been a reflection of the deceased’s beliefs about death. The finding could change what archaeologists believed about ancient South American decapitation rites, Rachel Feltman writes for The Washington Post.

“In the apparent absence of wealth goods or elaborated architecture, Lapa do Santo’s inhabitants seemed to use the human body to express their cosmological principles regarding death,” lead author André Strauss writes in a study published this week in PLOS One.

The skull was found with markings on the vertebrae that indicate it was lopped off after the person died. Likely a young man who was a member of the community, the skull was uncovered with two severed hands positioned over its face in a ritual pose, Charles Q. Choi writes for Live Science. Of all the human remains found at the Lapa do Santo site, this is the most complex burial found so far.

"This ritualized decapitation attests to the early sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas," Strauss tells Faith Karimi for CNN. "Geographically, it expands the known range of decapitation in more than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles), showing that during the early Holocene, this was not a phenomenon restricted to the western part of the continent as previously assumed."

Because these are the only human remains found at the site so far that show this kind of ritual burial, scientists aren’t sure whether it was a common rite or if there was something special about this man. However, the decapitated skull isn’t the only find that put Lapa do Santo on the map: the site is also the location of the oldest petroglyphs found in South America, which included carvings depicting men with enormous phalluses as well as pregnant women.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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