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Fossils Indicate Earliest Evidence of Human Decapitation Rituals

Sep 24, 2015 12:03 PM EDT

Human fossils excavated from an archaeological site known as Lapa do Santo in Brazil and dated to roughly 9,000 years ago indicate that New World hunter-gathers performed ritualized decapitations. This is the oldest known evidence of human decapitation practices, according to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Fragments of a buried body disvoered in 2007 and identified as Burial 26 include a cranium, jaw, the first six cervical vertebrae, and two severed hands laid over the skull on opposite sides. There were also v-shaped cut marks on the jaw and the six cervical vertebra.

According to researchers, all of this indicates that decapitations and amputations were a ritualized practice, rather than trophy-taking, where the remains would have been kept instead of buried. 

These fossil remains also suggest that Burial 26 was most likely a member of society at the time, the researchers noted. In this case, the ritualized decapitation could represent a funeral ceremony.

While these findings provide more insight into New World cultures, this study also questions previous interpretations of when decapitation rituals originated and where they were practiced.

"This ritualized decapitation attests to the early sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas," André Strauss, first author of the study, said in a statement. "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". 

Among the items excavated were additional fossils dating to approximately 12,000 years ago, according to a news release

Findings were recently published in the journal PLOS ONE

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