A group of archaeologists was working on a Brazilian cave that contained the remains of hunter gatherers . Beyond the importance of each remains, which provides new research opportunities, the site seemed to contain the typical samples left by the nomadic way of life . Until, half a meter deep, buried by large stone slabs, they found a skull that had been buried in a strange position. The hands had been placed over his face, covering the eye sockets. The jaw and the bones connecting the head to the spine were cut. That man, who lived in South America 9,000 years ago, was beheaded.
Off with his head!
The discovery took place during excavations carried out between 2001 and 2015 in a cave located in Lagoa Santa , in eastern Brazil . This striking find appeared in tomb 26 of the site. The study, published in the journal PLoS One , indicates that the skull belonged to a man in his 30s and that he was decapitated with sharp stone flakes about two centimeters . The amputated hands were placed on his face in a very specific way: the right hand was placed over the left eye with the fingers pointing downwards; while the left hand pointed upwards resting on the right eye. The burial was circular in shape, about 40 cm in diameter, and covered with five limestone slabs.
As cruel and macabre as it may seem, beheading is a common and well-studied act in ancient American cultures. The Incas, Mexicas and other American peoples had beheading among their practices, carried out in warlike and religious rituals. The point is that the oldest beheading known to date was around 3,000 years old. The finding that we are commenting on does not share the chronological or geographical schemes, since its location is far from the cultural centers where the great pre-Hispanic civilizations were formed.
From the remains they extracted the collagen which, through carbon-14, has made it possible to date the find to 9,000 years old . It is one of the oldest beheaded humans in the world and by far the first sign of this act found in America to date. Although the dating indicates that we are dealing with the remains of the same person, only the study and comparison of DNA samples could confirm that the skull, hands and vertebrae found belong to a single individual.
And this coming to?
The explanations that paleoanthropologists and other researchers give to the remains are far from conclusive. On the one hand, the possibility of being faced with an enemy of war was considered. Cases are known in which parts of the body (especially the head) of the defeated opponent were displayed as trophies. But the skull in tomb 26 does not show other signs of violence typical of these cases and, furthermore, everything indicates that it was buried shortly after death, so it was not exhibited during the time that a war trophy would be shown. to the public. To completely clear up any doubts, the decapitated man’s teeth were analyzed. The water and food we eat in our lives leave traceable traces. The results indicated that the buried individual lived and ate in the same geographic area as the rest of those buried at the site, which indicates that it would belong to the same group.
Discarded the possibility of a war trophy, the explanations passed to the favorite wild card of paleoanthropologists and archaeologists: the ritual. It is clear that the detailed placement of the human remains in the burial leads us to think of a ritual act. The difficulty lies in ascertaining the type of ritual, for which only hypotheses can be launched whose proof depends on continuing to investigate and search for more clues about our prehistoric past. “As far as I know, there is no other burial with these characteristics,” said Salazar-García, who was part of the research team. “No other object has been found next to the decapitated one, so we think that, at this time, the way to express its cosmological principles regarding death was through the manipulation of the corpse.”
There are those who bet on a third way , arguing that the placement of the corpse could respond to the attempt to disconnect between the living and being buried. That is to say, limiting the ability of the buried individual to interact with the living, by cutting off their hands, covering their face and sealing the burial with heavy stones. Other cases have been documented ethnographically and archaeologically in which an individual harmful to society has been hidden and placed in a safe place for the protection of the living.
The “Old World”
In any case, the fascinating discovery opens an exciting debate about the beginning of beheading used for rituals, the geography through which these acts spread and the cultural reasons for them. And, of course, we are facing one more test to affirm that the so-called “New World” has little that is new and much that is unknown.
Gracia, F. 2017. Severed Heads and Outraged Corpses . Wake up Iron.
Strauss, A. et al 2015. The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil). PLoS ONE 10 (9): e0137456. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.