The discovery of a series of ancient burial sites in eastern Brazil has helped to shed light on some truly blood-curdling funerary rituals that took place around 9,500 years ago. The mutilated bodies, some of which showed signs of cannibalism, represent the earliest evidence of complex funerary traditions in this part of South America.
Describing their morbid discovery in the journal Antiquity, the study authors reveal that the bones – which were radiocarbon dated to between 9,400 and 9,600 years ago – were found at a cave called Lapa do Santo and display signs of “manipulation”.
They go on to write that it seems likely that during this period, “the reduction of the body – by mutilation, defleshing, tooth removal, exposure to fire and possibly cannibalism – followed by the secondary burial of the remains according to strict rules, became a central element in the treatment of the dead.”
In an interview with Discovery News, study co-author André Strauss went into even more grisly detail, explaining that “burials included bones with cutting and chopping marks, exposure to fire, a head buried with amputated hands and skulls in which all teeth were intentionally removed.”
Fascinatingly, remains were found to vary considerably between graves. In one deposit, bones appeared to be arranged in accordance with cosmological beliefs, “centered on a ‘dichotomic principle’ that was expressed by pairs of oppositions among abstract categories such as ‘adult’ and ‘sub-adult’, ‘cranium’ and ‘post-cranium’, ‘diaphysis’ and ‘extremities’, and ‘teeth’ and ‘empty alveoli’.”
A nearby grave, meanwhile, contained the remains of bodies that had apparently been left to decompose elsewhere and only brought to Lapa do Santo for burial when they had all been decayed.
Intriguingly, these rituals seem to have died out after a while, as bodies buried between 8,200 and 8,600 years ago show no evidence of mutilation or manipulation. This, the researchers say, demonstrates that “that the region was inhabited by dynamic groups in constant transformation over a period of centuries.”