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8 October 2015

A brief history of ritual beheading

Scientists have discovered a 9,000-year-old decapitated head in South America, in the oldest case of ritual decapitation found in the New World.

By Emad Ahmed

Archaeologists in Brazil have discovered a severed head in the eastern region of the country, thought to be the oldest case of ritual decapitation in South America. The skull was calculated as being approximately 9,000-years-old thanks to radiocarbon dating, and found in Lagoa Santa in the state of Minas Gerais.

However, the entire skeleton was not found, and the skull was coupled with severed hands and the first six vertebrae of the neck. The hands were placed deliberately on the skull in opposite directions, with the left hand covering the right side of the face and the right hand covering the left side.  

The items were covered with pieces of limestone in its shallow grave, found 55cm below the surface. This unusual placement gave the archaeologists enough information to realise the special nature of their discovery compared with previous simpler burials, declaring the head might have belonged to a respected local individual.

Photo: Danilo V Bernardo

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The excavation site, known as Lapa do Santo (“Saint’s rock shelter”) has been noted as the home of an ancient tribe. It was here where the oldest evidence of artwork on rock in South America was found, which included phallic imagery, up to four metres below the surface of the excavation site.

Ritual decapitation was very common in previous civilizations in South American history. For example, Arara Indians in the Brazilian Amazon used the cranium of defeated enemies as musical instruments and also ornaments placed at the top of poles. The Inca people in modern-day Peru used the skulls of important foes as drinking cups, a status symbol used as a sign of “military supremacy” according to the authors. Other groups also used severed heads as war trophies, such as the Tupinamba people from coastal Brazil.  

Severed heads were also considered spiritually beneficial to various tribes. The Jivaro tribe in Ecuador shrunk the heads of their enemies, known as tsantsa, by removing the hair and skin, boiling the skull in hot water for up to 30 minutes. These tsantsa were then believed to protect owners as a form of spiritual imprisonment of the defeated enemy. Beheadings remain a brutal emblem in conflict, with groups like Isis using such murders in their propaganda videos and to instil fear.

The only specific detail the researchers could gather about our new friend was that the head belonged to a young male, who was most likely native to the local region. Further analysis, such as DNA extraction, will have to be used in order to gather more information about the individual.

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