9,000-year-old Skull is Oldest Known American Ritual Decapitation

Skull and hands buried together in Brazil is oldest known example of decapitation burial ritual in Americas. (Danilo Bernardo/CNN)

Skull and hands found together in Brazil is oldest known example of decapitation burial ritual in Americas (by Danilo Bernardo/via CNN)

9,000-Year-Old Skull  is Oldest Known American Decapitation

Academics generally accept that decapitation was practiced by Amerindians. A new discovery has revealed that the practice may have been both older and more widespread, and may even have been performed for different reasons, than previously known.

A team led by André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany has used accelerator mass spectrometry to date a male skull, cervical vertebrae, and hands found buried together in Lapa do Santo, Brazil.  The remains were dated at 9,000 years before the present. Previously, the oldest known examples were only 3,000 years old. The site of burial also extended the geographic range of decapitation ritual burials.

“…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,” says André Strauss.


Various South American groups were known to decapitate captured enemies. The “trophy heads,” frequently “improved” with further mutilation and decoration, served as status symbol for the owner and deterrent for the enemy. Other tribes decapitated sacrificial victims  in a religious ritual.  The residents of Lapa do Santo, however, seemed to be a low-violence group of hunter-gatherers, possibly settled agriculturists by the time this young man was buried.  Interestingly, the analysis revealed that decapitation may have been used for community members, not only for defeated enemies.

“The chemical analysis of strontium isotopes done in this study indicates that the decapitated individual was not an outsider to the group… it was probably not a defeated enemy but instead a member of the community”, says Domingo Carlos Salazar-Gárcia, also of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Although there is no mention of whether the victim had been decapitated while alive, the careful attention to the body parts after death, and the fact that the deceased was a local youth, may indicate a ritual burial of a valued community member. The authors state that “Lapa do Santo’s inhabitants seemed to use the human body to express their cosmological principles regarding death.” 

The preparation of the body for this type of burial was elaborate. It involved multiple processes in which the body was manipulated. See a schematic of the burial site contents, as well as a description of the forensic process, to learn how this was done.

Why do you think the Amerindians buried their dead in such arrangements? How do you think this compares with other early civilization funeral rituals? 

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Staff Writer

Leo Ashcraft

A retired broadcast engineer, talk show host, news reporter - I have done everything there is to do in the radio broadcast business. I worked a year in television. I left that as my true passion has always been radio - plus I got tired of hearing - you have a face for radio.. I hope you enjoy my articles! Be sure to share them excessively on facebook - like our page and bug your friends with invites!

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