Archaeologists working in a rock shelter in Lapa do Santo, Brazil, have uncovered the remains of a 9,000-year-old ceremonial beheading. It’s now considered the oldest known case of decapitation in the New World.

As a ritual practice, decapitation was widespread among Native Americans across the entire South American continent—a practice with deep historical roots. Prior to the new discovery, the oldest known case of ceremonial beheading was found in the Andes and dated to 3,000 years ago. The identification of a 9,000-year-old ritual decapitation, confirmed by a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, extends this practice further back in time by a whopping 6,000 years. The details of the new study can now be found at the open access journal PLOS ONE.

The remains, discovered in the archaeological site of Lapa do Santo in east-central Brazil, consisted 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, while the left hand was laid over the right side.

This Is the Oldest Case of Ritual Decapitation Ever Uncovered in the Americas34

(Credit: Gil Tokyo)

The archaeologists insist this wasn’t a case of inter-group violence, as it often assumed. The evidence, say the researchers, points to a more complex scenario.

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

This Is the Oldest Case of Ritual Decapitation Ever Uncovered in the Americas

(Credit: A. Strauss et al., 2015/PLOS)

Rather than being an act of violence against an enemy, the practice was likely part of a broader set of mortuary rituals involving the careful and deliberate manipulation of the body. It’s possible that the orientation of skull and hands was an important public display, one designed to enhance social cohesion within the community. As the authors write in the study:

[We] suggest a ritualized decapitation instead of trophy-taking, testifying for the sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas during the early Archaic period. In the apparent absence of wealth goods or elaborated architecture, Lapa do Santo’s inhabitants seemed to use the human body to express their cosmological principles regarding death.

First author André Strauss explains the significance of the discovery:

This ritualized decapitation attests to the early sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas. 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.

As Michael Casey reports in CBS news, the final removal of the head wasn’t the result of cutting, but instead pulling and rotating until detachment was achieved.

“We have to put this in perspective,” explained Strauss to CBS News. “They had no metal knives. They had no guillotine. Maybe with a huge metal ax it might sound like a good idea to decapitate someone to kill him as we have done a lot in our history. But these guys only had little flakes. We’re talking about razors, delicate instruments.”

Read the entire study at PLOS: “Thee Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil).


Email the author at george@io9.com and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image by Danilo Bernardo