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Oldest Decapitation Is Discovered to Be Over 9,000 Years Old

Palms of the hands are placed over the face of the skull, while the left hand was laid over the right side of the face with distal phalanges pointing up (i.e. to the forehead). (Image: André Strauss)
Palms of the hands are placed over the face of the skull, while the left hand was laid over the right side of the face with distal phalanges pointing up (i.e. to the forehead). (Image: André Strauss)

Archaeologists have found what they believe to be the oldest decapitation in the New World.

The skull is dated to be over 9000 years old, and was buried in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo — often called the Saint’s rock shelter — which is in Brazil.

The archaeological site, which has yielded 26 burials so far was first excavated in 2007, and dates back to the early Holocene period. Researchers have detailed their published findings in the journal PLOS ONE.

The archaeologists spent several field seasons at Lapa do Santo, excavating the burials. (Image: André Strauss)

Archaeologists spent several field seasons at Lapa do Santo, excavating the burials. (Image: André Strauss)

Radiocarbon dating showed the skull was between 9127 and 9438 years old, making it about four millennia older than the earliest known decapitation in South America. It is also around 1000 years older than similar archaeological finds from North America.

Led by André Strauss from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, the team believes this was part of the mysterious burial practice of hunter-gatherers that passed through this settlement.

Schematic representation of Burial 26 from Lapa do Santo. (Image: Drawing by Gil Tokyo/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.g005)

Schematic representation of Burial 26 from Lapa do Santo. (Image: Drawing by Gil Tokyo/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.g005)

André Strauss examined the skull, and nearby bones, and objects minutely — and had tested their age with radiocarbon dating with Strauss saying:

‘the skull might even be the oldest instance of decapitation in the world.’

The grave called Burial 26, consisted of a circular pit covered with five limestone cobbles, inside the archaeologists found the skull’s face covered with two severed hands pointing in opposite directions. There were incisions on the neck bone that showed where the head had been cut off.

Carbonatic concretion was still present making the incisions in the column of the right articular processes, indicated by white arrow, very subtle; b) detail of the right column of articular processes after removal of concretion; c); d) and e) SEM of the incisions. (Image: André Strauss/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.g011)

Carbonatic concretion is still present, making incisions in the column of the right articular processes, indicated by white arrow, very subtle; b) Right column of articular processes after removal of concretion; c, d, and e are SEM of the incisions. (Image: André Strauss/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.g011)

Strauss wrote that by “Using cranial morphology, and tooth wear this individual was estimated to be a young adult male.”

Strontium analysis, comparing the isotopic signature of the bones to other specimens from Lapa do Santo, suggests that Burial 26 likely belonged to a local member of the group, according to D News, researchers also ruled out that it could have been the result of trophy taking.

Strauss told Discovery News that: “Trophy-heads are usually curated for long periods after being obtained, while Burial 26 was interred not long after death.”

a) infero-lateral view; b) infero-anterior view; c) the left part of face and neurocranium were removed to allow the view of the relative position of atlas and foramen magnum; d) detail of the relationship of atlas, axis, and the other cervical vertebrae. (Image: André Strauss/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.g007)

a) Infero-lateral view; b) Infero-anterior view; c) The left part of face, and neurocranium were removed to allow the view of relative position of atlas – and foramen magnum; d) Detail of the relationship of atlas, axis, and the other cervical vertebrae. (Image: André Strauss/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.g007)

Strauss says when a skull is used as trophies, they usually have holes drilled in them for carrying, and the fact that the strontium signature points to it being local – and not an outsider.

Chemical analysis of a fossil tooth has indicated the decapitated person had grown-up with a diet of locally produced food, which is the same as the 18 other ancient people interred in the rock-shelter. Strauss suspects the removal of a head had occurred after death, and was part of a ritual treatment of the body.

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