The Oldest Known Ritual Decapitation

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, November 14, 2015
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“Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea of what was going on.” —Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great”

In A Nutshell

For some time, the earliest known examples of decapitation in the Americas were remains found in Florida and along the Ohio River Valley, dating to around 4,500 years ago. The excavation of an oddly positioned skull and its two hands in the Lapo do Santo burial grounds of Brazil change that date, estimated to have been buried around 9,000 years ago. How and why the person was killed and why they were buried in such a peculiar method is the subject only of speculation.

The Whole Bushel

Decapitation and beheading has always been something of a popular execution method. Mankind’s fascination with separating a head from its body is one that’s been strangely persistent. When the guillotine was invented for speed and efficiency in the Middle Ages, it was a method of execution that was reserved only for the upper class. It was a noble death in England and one of the more dignified ways to be killed, while today, it’s used for its graphic brutality.

It’s only recently that we’ve learning just how far back our fascination with and use of decapitation has gone.

When archaeologists were excavating the Brazilian burial site called Lapo do Santo Mortuary Pattern 2, they found remains that had been ritually decapitated and posed somewhere between 9,600 and 9,400 years ago. Until the discovery, the earliest such death was estimated at around 4,500 years ago, with burials found in Florida and along the Ohio River Valley.

The ancients of South America were well known for their taking of human heads as trophies or during sacrificial rites and rituals performed for their gods. So while finding heads and headless skeletons isn’t necessarily odd for South America, most of those trophies and rituals are only a couple thousand years old. Just what happened to the man who had been buried beneath a limestone slab 9,000 years ago is less clear.

The skull was buried in a hole beneath a piece of limestone, along with the hands of the victim. The right hand was positioned over the left side of the face, fingers pointing downward, while the left hand was placed on the right side of the face, with fingers pointing upward. Pieces of bone were missing, there were signs of cut marks on the jaw, and the first six vertebrae were also buried.

Tests run on the bones seem to indicate that he was a member of a local group or family, which could rule out the idea of decapitation as a way of taking a trophy. When most heads and bones were taken as trophies, they were trophies of war, used to send a message to their enemies while also being used as drinking vessels and musical instruments. This burial seems to have been a highly ritualized one, but it’s unknown how the person was killed, what the ritual was for, and why it was performed.

Officially, this person is known as Burial 26. Burial 26 was surrounded by other burials, but none with that level of strange, ritualized behavior demonstrated in the careful way the bones were laid out.

The remains aren’t the only things that were found in the area. Lapo do Santo is also home to some of the oldest rock carvings found in the Americas, including a stick figure man carved into a cavern wall, whose large and highly exaggerated appendage led researchers to call him the “horny little man.” The rock carving has been dated to anywhere from 9,000 to 12,000 years old, making it of the same era as the strangely buried decapitation. Also found in the cave were stone and bone tools, along with remnants of a hearth fire and meals that had been prepared and eaten in the cave.

While the discovery of the carvings pushed back the date the Americas were said to have been settled, the burial of the decapitated remains not only pushes back dates, it shows us just how little we really know about the early inhabitants of South America.

Show Me The Proof

Discovery News: Beheading: Once a Nobleman’s Death
PLOS ONE: The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil)
LiveScience: ‘Little Horny Man’: Rock Carving of Giant Phallus Discovered