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9,000 Years Ago, Someone Chopped Off This Person's Head and Hands

It's the oldest evidence of ritual decapitation in Brazil.
Photo: Andre Strauss

Our human ancestors proved at times to be a pretty hoary crew. Some 14,700 years ago, a bunch of them were drinking out of human skulls and gorging on human flesh in the UK. And now, the discovery of a 9,000-year-old decapitated skull with two severed hands in Brazil, suggests that ritualized beheadings may have been a thing too.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Plos One, researchers describe finding the lopped off skull (Burial 26) alongside two amputated hands in the archeological site of Lapa do Santo in east-central Brazil.


A drawing of Burial 26. Image: Gil Tokyo

"This the first and oldest decapitated skull found in the whole of Brazil," André Strauss, lead author of the paper and archeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, told me over the phone.

"The decapitation was not a punitive act, it was not a display of power, it wasn't intended to subjugate anyone. This was a decapitation sparked from a ritual practice—it was probably done after the person died […] with stone flakes because they didn't have metal knives at the time."

Rodrigo Elias excavating Burial 26 in 2014. Image: André Strauss

Lapa do Santo is known as a rock shelter that harbours evidence of human occupation dating back roughly 12,000 years ago, according to the researchers. Strauss has been excavating at the site since 2001, and he and his team discovered the lone skull back in 2007 with the two severed hands draped over either side of its face. The researchers have described the find as the "oldest case of decapitation in the New World," and suggest that the people of this society carried out such rituals instead of trophy-taking.

"In the absence of wealth goods or elaborated architecture, Lapo do Santo's inhabitants seemed to use the human body to express their cosmological principles regarding death," they write.

Strauss explained that he and his team performed strontium analysis on the skull in order to compare Burial 26's isotopic makeup with other specimens from the same area. The researchers previously found other kinds of severed body parts dotted about the area—but never a decapitated head, until 2007. Strauss said that their strontium analysis confirmed that the lone skull lodged in the earth indeed came from the same group as other specimens found in the area.

Close-up shot of Burial 26. Image: Mauricio de Paiva

Ritualized decapitations in South America were definitely a common thing, according to the researchers, with rich evidence of this practice found in both ethnographic literature and the archeological record. But Strauss said that in the future, he wouldn't necessarily be on the hunt for another decapitated head.

"I'd just like to increase our knowledge on the other mortuary rituals of those guys from 10,000 years ago. It would be great to find another decapitated head, but that's not the main aim," he said.