The oldest case of decapitation in the Americas

A 9,000 year-old case of human decapitation has been found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in Brazil

September 23, 2015

Few Amerindian habits impressed the European colonizers more than the taking and displaying of human body parts, especially when decapitation was involved. Although disputed by some authors, it has become widely accepted that decapitation was common among Native Americans across the entire continent. The archaeological evidence confirms that the practice has deep chronological roots. In South America, the oldest decapitation occurred in the Andes and dates to ca. 3000 years before the present. Since all other South American archaeological cases occur in the Andes (e.g., Inca, Nazca, Moche, Wari, Tiwanaco) it was assumed that decapitation was an Andean phenomenon in both its origins and in its most unambiguous expression.

However, an international team led by André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has discovered this kind of practice is much older than previously thought and not restricted to the western fringe of the continent. In a paper they report the discovery in the archaeological site of Lapa do Santo (east-central Brazil) of a case of human decapitation dated to more than 9.000 years before the present, using accelerator mass spectrometry. The interment was composed of a cranium, jaw, the first six cervical vertebrae and two severed hands of an adult male. The right hand was laid over the left side of the face with distal phalanges pointing to the chin while the left hand was laid over the right side of the face with distal phalanges pointing to the forehead.

Using a confocal microscope that can generate three-dimensional models of cut marks it was determined that soft tissues were removed using stone flakes. According to a team of forensic experts that took part in this study the final removal of the head was not the result of cutting but instead of pulling and rotating until detachment was achieved.

Although the Western perspective has always understood decapitation in the context of inter-group violence and punishment, the archaeological and ethnographic record points to a more complex scenario in the New World. “The chemical analysis of strontium isotopes done in this study indicates that the decapitated individual was not an outsider to the group”, says Domingo Carlos Salazar-Gárcia of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “Therefore, it was probably not a defeated enemy but instead a member of the community”.

The researchers propose that the decapitation of Lapa do Santo was not a violent act against the enemy but instead part of a broader set of mortuary rituals involving a strong component of manipulation of the body. 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. “This ritualized decapitation attests to the early sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas”, says first author André Strauss. “Moreover, the finding from Lapa do Santo doubles the chronological depth of the practice of decapitation in South America. Geographically, it expands the known range of decapitation in 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”.


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