Oldest Decapitated Head in the New World

SCIENCE

Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest case of decapitation ever found in the New World. The skull belonged to a young man and was buried in Brazil about 9,000 years ago. (Nat Geo News)

Use our resources to dig deeper into the weird world of anthropology.

Paleoanthropologists describe the Lapa do Santo burial: “The palms of the hands were positioned over the face of the skull. The right hand was laid over the left side of the face with distal phalanges pointing down (i.e., to the chin), while the left hand was laid over the right side of the face with distal phalanges pointing up (i.e. to the forehead). . . . this individual was estimated to be a young adult male.” Photograph courtesy Danielo V. Bernardo, et. al., and PLoS One. (CC BY 4.0)

Paleoanthropologists describe the Lapa do Santo burial: “The palms of the hands were positioned over the face of the skull. The right hand was laid over the left side of the face with distal phalanges pointing down (i.e., to the chin), while the left hand was laid over the right side of the face with distal phalanges pointing up (i.e. to the forehead). . . . this individual was estimated to be a young adult male.”
Photograph courtesy Danielo V. Bernardo, et. al., and PLoS One. (CC BY 4.0)

Discussion Ideas

  • The (very readable!) new scientific paper dates the oldest decapitated skull yet found in the Americas to 9.1–9.4 cal kyBP. What does this mean?
    • It means the man had his head removed about 9,100-9,400 years ago.
      • KyBP stands for “kilo years before present.” Kilo is a metric prefix meaning 1,000 or indicating multiplication by 1,000.
      • Cal means the date has been calibrated to correspond to our own, modern calendar years. (For this reason, “cal” can be shorthand for “calendar.”)

 

  • What was going on in Lagoa Santa, central Brazil, about 9,100 years ago?
    • The 8th century BCE (specifically, about 7100 to 7400 BCE) was right in the middle of the Neolithic, the tail end of the Stone Age. The authors prefer to call this period the early Archaic period in the Americas.
    • The man whose skull was unearthed was part of a thriving community in Lapa do Santo, a series of natural karst rock shelters (caves) in a rich savanna-forest landscape. Members of the Lapa do Santo community were “hunter-gatherers with low mobility and a subsistence strategy focused on gathering plant foods and hunting small and mid-sized mammals.” In addition to establishing sophisticated funerary rituals (26 human burials have been discovered at Lapa do Santo) this Neolithic community may have been the first to create rock art.
    • What else was going on in the Neolithic? A lot!
      • In North America, communities in what are now the Great Plains were adjusting to new vegetation patterns following the end of the Ice Age.
      • In Europe, people arrived and settled in Ireland for the first time.
      • In Asia, the settlement of Catal Huyuk, site of what could be the world’s first map, was founded. (Meanwhile, in the nearby Fertile Crescent, communities were busy developing agriculture. Ho hum.)
      • In Africa, the lush “Green Sahara” encouraged increased settlement in Northern Africa.
      • In Australia, rising sea levels isolated Aboriginal Tasmanians from other Aboriginal Australian communities.

 

  • According to Nat Geo, the Stone Age community was a “simple society with few tools (certainly no machetes).” So, how did this guy lose his head?
    • Well, it was probably removed after he had already died. According to New Scientist, “Cut marks on the skull, hands and neck vertebrae suggest that the head was removed around the time of death.”
    • According to Nat Geo, evidence suggests that “after the head was partially cut off, it was manually pulled and twisted to finish the job. It would have been difficult, and gruesome, work.”

 

  • Why do you think this guy lost his head? (Experts don’t know for sure.)
    • A trophy? This isn’t unheard-of in prehistoric South America.
      • According to the study’s authors, “Tupinamba groups from coastal Brazil. . . used to collect body parts, including heads, as war trophies. The Arara Indians, in the Brazilian Amazon, performed the Ieipari ceremony in which the cranium of the defeated enemy, also used as a musical instrument, was displayed on the top of a pole. Among the Uru-Uru Chipayas, in Bolivia, skulls were used as part of a syncretic Christian liturgy . . In Ecuador, the Jivaros produced shrunken heads (tsantsa) from dead enemies.” And according to Nat Geo, “The Inca emperor Atahualpa drank from the gold-encrusted skull of a rival, maybe his brother. In fact, more than one culture figured out that a cranium makes a great cup.”
      • This scenario is unlikely. According to Nat Geo, “There are no holes or scrape marks that would be expected if the head was cleaned for display, and the cranium wasn’t opened to remove the brain (which you would definitely want to do if a head was sitting out on display decomposing).”
    • A ritual or custom signifying respect? This is also a familiar practice among prehistoric South American communities.
      • According to the study’s authors, “The Chimus . . . in Peru incorporated decapitation as a standard procedure in human sacrifices . . . Disembodied skulls of both adults and children were used as dedicatory offerings.”
      • This scenario is more likely. The authors of the paper suggest “a ritualized decapitation instead of trophy-taking, testifying for the sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas during the early Archaic period. 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.”
        • Experts point to the unusual arrangement of the body parts on the Lapa do Santo skeleton: amputated left hand over the right side of the face, fingers pointing up, and amputated right hand over left side, fingers pointing down. “There is an argument for great symbolism in these two hands,” says one anthropologist. Left and right, up and down: “that’s dualism.”

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: Oldest Decapitated Head in New World Found in ‘Vogue’ Pose

New Scientist: America’s oldest decapitated head reveals strange burial ritual

Nat Geo: What is anthropology?

(extra credit!) PLoS One: The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil)

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