Scientists now have evidence that the oldest known case of ritual decapitation in New World occurred about 9,000 years ago in what is now Brazil. Researchers have unearthed an ancient skull that is at least 4,000 years older than the previously confirmed instance of ritual decapitation in South America. The skull was excavated from Lapa do Santo in central-eastern Brazil in 2007. However, its analysis was completed only recently.
It was not an act of aggression
Findings of the study were published in the journal PLOS One. Scientists led by André Strauss of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology studied the skull and nearby bones. They also tested the age of the remains using radiocarbon dating. Researchers concluded that the skull was between 9,127 and 9,438 years old, about 1,000 years older than that from North America. A suspected instance of decapitation in Florida was about 8,000 years old.
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Decapitation was common in the New World as heads of defeated rivals would be displayed as trophies of war. However, this decapitation was not an action of aggression. It was part of “a broader set of mortuary rituals,” probably a matter of ancestor worship. The palms of severed hands were placed over the skull, facing in opposite directions.
Ritualized decapitation was a common practice among hunter-gatherers
The careful removal of hands and their proper placement against the face, coupled with several other hints, indicated that it was a ritualized decapitation. Researchers noted that six cervical vertebrae below the skull had V-shaped cut marks. The evidence of human occupation in South America dates back to about 12,000 years ago.
André Strauss said tooth wear and cranial morphology suggested that this individual was a young adult male. He said scientists need to investigate the culture this individual was part of to gain further insights. Early hunter-gatherers in the Americas practiced ritualized decapitation, and it was one of the rare things about the Amerindians that impressed the European colonizers.