The ritual of decapitation among the indigenous Americans has a long and deep history. Historical evidence for this practice has been found across both North and South continents. And until now, the oldest reports were from archeological remains discovered in the Peruvian Andes, which date to around 3,000 years ago. But a new discovery from Brazil now pushes the date back for the first known ritualized decapitation of humans in the Americas by an incredible 6,000 years.
From shrunken heads made famous by the Jivaros in Ecuador, to the grisly practices performed by the Munduruku Indians from northern Brazil who would remove all soft tissue and then smoke the remains and hang up the result, head-hunting was common among indigenous American communities. Even though some have suggested that trophy hunting was in fact a result of the demand from European markets for the macabre souvenirs, evidence seems to confirm that head-hunting was rife before European colonizers arrived. But how long ago did this ritual start?
While excavating a rock shelter in east-central Brazil, the researchers of a new study published in PloS One found something unexpected. Called Lapa do Santo, the rock shelters are known to have been used by some of the earliest known inhabitants of South America. “They were hunter-gathers or foragers who lived in the area for at least 12,000 years,” explained Rodrigo Elias Oliveira, one of the coauthors of the study, in an email to IFLScience. In the shelter, a total of 37 burials have been unearthed, but it was the 26th that was of most interest.
A drawing of "Burial 26" found in Lapa do Santo, Brazil. Gil Tokyo
“Burial 26” was found in a circular grave roughly 40 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter, and consisted of just the decapitated skull of an individual, with right and left severed hands covering the face. The researchers from the Max Planck Institute were able to observe v-shaped cuts made into the vertebrae at the base of the skull, suggesting that the skull was forcibly removed from the body. In addition to this, marks on the jaw of the skull indicate that soft tissue was also removed.
Comparing the remain's isotopic signature to other burials found at Lapa do Santo, it seems that the individual who met his or her gruesome end 9,000 years ago was likely a local member of the group. All this evidence, the researchers claim, suggests that this is the earliest ritualized decapitation of humans in the New World. “The significance of this find is a big change in the idea that decapitation was an Andean phenomenon,” says Oliveira. If they are proven right, then it could lead to an overhaul of previous theories about the origins of this practice, and how it spread amongst indigenous groups.