Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World

The 9,000-year-old skull was recovered in Brazil with two severed hands covering the face.

An international team of researchers has unearthed the oldest case of decapitation in the New World -- a 9,000-year-old skull buried in Brazil with two severed hands covering the face.

The grave was excavated in 2007 in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo, an archaeological site that has yielded 26 human burials dating to the early Holocene period. It consisted of a circular pit covered with five limestone cobbles.

There, the archaeologists found a skull with the palms of severed hands arranged over the face in opposite directions.

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The right hand was laid over the left side of the face with the fingers pointing to the chin, while the left hand covered the right side of the face, the fingers pointing to the forehead.

A jaw and the first six cervical vertebrae, all bearing v-shaped cut marks, completed the assemblage.

"Using cranial morphology and tooth wear, this individual was estimated to be a young adult male," André Strauss from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany and colleagues wrote in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

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Called Burial 26, the remains date back 9,000 years according to accelerator mass spectrometry. Strontium analysis, comparing the isotopic signature of the bones to other specimens from Lapa do Santo, suggest Burial 26 likely belonged to a local member of the group.

The researchers ruled out the skull was the result of trophy taking, which was common in ancient South America.

"Trophy-heads are usually curated for long periods after being obtained, while Burial 26 was interred not long after death," Strauss told Discovery News.

He added that trophy heads usually have drill holes in the skull for carrying. Neither drill holes nor an enlargement of the foramen magnum, which is the opening on the bottom of the skull, were observed in Burial 26.

"Moreover, strontium signature does not point to the individual being an outsider, thus representing an enemy," Strauss said.

The researchers concluded the finding from Lapa do Santo is the oldest case of decapitation in the New World.

Older than other reported cases in North America, Burial 26 almost doubles the chronological depth of the practice of decapitation in South America, where the oldest case, reported from the Andean region, dates back some 5,000 years.

"Geographically, it expands the known range of decapitation by more than 2,000 kilometers, showing that during the early Holocene this was not a phenomenon restricted to the western part of the continent as previously assumed," Strauss said.

He noted that decapitation in the New World does not necessary mean inter-group violence, but represents a more complex scenario.

According to the researchers, it is very likely that decapitation occurred after death for Burial 26, as part of a procedure which attests to the early sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas.

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"The careful arrangement of the hands over the face is compatible with an important public display component in the ritual that could have worked to enhance social cohesion within the community," Strauss said.

In the apparent absence of wealth goods or elaborate architecture, Lapa do Santo's inhabitants would manipulate the human body to express their cosmological principles.

In this view, the finding has important implications, according to Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

"It opens a window to the mysterious cosmology of the first human peopling of South America and provides us with a rigorous record of their amazing funerary practices," Hublin told Discovery News.

The skull as it was found in the burial pit and a reconstruction showing the position of the hands over the skull.

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