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Oldest Decapitated Head in New World Found in ‘Vogue’ Pose

Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest case of decapitation ever found in the New World. The skull belonged to a young man and was buried in Brazil about 9,000 years old, with severed hands covering its face in a mysterious pose—left hand over the right side of the face, fingers pointing up, and right hand over left side, pointing down.

Danilo Bernardo
Photo by Danilo Bernardo
This 9,000-year-old skull, found with severed hands facing opposite directions in front of the face, may be the oldest evidence of decapitation in the New World.

No one, it seems, has ever seen anything like it. Why was this guy decapitated? Why the weird posing of the hands 9,000 years before Madonna’s song “Vogue“? And where’s the rest of him?

André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found the skull, but he still finds it a mystery. He was excavating the Lapa do Santo site in eastern Brazil when he struck upon the head buried under a rock. He kept sifting away the dirt around it, looking for the rest of the skeleton, but it never materialized. Instead, he slowly uncovered the disembodied skull and hands, partially crushed from being buried for thousands of years.

The How

The last thing Strauss, or anyone else, expected to find at such an old site was a decapitated head; the next oldest decapitation in South America is only about 3,000 years old, and practically on the other side of the continent, in Peru. “I’m not a decapitologist,” he says. (That’s not a real title, but given the number of severed heads in human history, maybe it should be.)

The find raised many questions. First, how did these people, who were hunter-gatherers living in a simple society with few tools (certainly no machetes) get the head off? Strauss got a tip from Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee. (Note: I’m taking her online course in human identification now, and it’s fantastic. If you want to learn what CSI is really like, sign up.)

Black noticed a similarity to a modern-day case she’s working on, in which the skeleton of a woman was found decapitated. She saw the same kind of fractures in the neck, suggesting that after the head was partially cut off, it was manually pulled and twisted to finish the job. It would have been difficult, and gruesome, work.

Strauss et al, PLOS ONE
Strauss et al, PLOS ONE

The Where

Lapa do Santo, incidentally, is also where the oldest human skeleton in South America was found, named Luzia, and the oldest rock art, which turns out to be a carving of a man with a giant phallus, dubbed “Little Horny Man.”

So yes, our hunter-gatherer ancestors sound just as interested in skulls and penis art as your average teenage boy today. But before you snicker, remember that these fascinations pop up all over the world throughout human history: sex and fertility, obviously, but also skulls.

Even though many people consider skulls morbid or even sinister today, for most of our existence people have had a fairly cozy relationship with human heads. They’re still pretty popular, too. A John Varvatos skull scarf costs 250 bucks.

In fact, I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a bright purple skull grinning at me as I write. It’s a life-sized ceramic head decorated with turquoise swirls in a Mexican Day of the Dead style. My husband and mother-in-law looked a little concerned when I dashed into a San Antonio gift shop to snatch it from the display window.

But I love my ceramic skull, and it’s part of a long symbolic tradition. People have always cut off heads and kept them, or buried them, or used them for all manner of purposes. Skulls can be war trophies: The Inca emperor Atahualpa drank from the gold-encrusted skull of a rival, maybe his brother. In fact, more than one culture figured out that a cranium makes a great cup. Or they can be more peaceful reminders of our ancestors.

“There is often no link about these similar forms of behavior practiced in different part of the world,” says Silvia Bello, an anthropologist who studies death practices at the Natural History Museum in London. “The fascination of humans for heads and skulls seems to be the common ground.”

The Why

We don’t know why our mystery man in Brazil was decapitated, but it most likely wasn’t as a trophy. There are no holes or scrape marks that would be expected if the head was cleaned for display, and the cranium wasn’t opened to remove the brain (which you would definitely want to do if a head was sitting out on display decomposing).

Andre Strauss
Photo by Andre Strauss
An archaeologist exhumes one of the skeletons found at Lapa do Santo.

Strauss also doubts that he was killed as a rival or outsider. He was a local, based on the signature of strontium isotopes in his bones. He may not have been executed at all; perhaps he died of natural causes or in a fight, and his head was removed and buried in a special way for symbolic reasons that we may never understand.

One hint, though, lies in the fact that the hands were arranged over the face as opposites in that ‘vogue’ pose. (For the sticklers: It’s really not quite like Madonna’s vogue, if you look up photos of her, but I don’t know what else to compare it to.)

“There is an argument for great symbolism in these two hands,” says anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University. “Left and right, that’s dualism.” Opposites were a big theme in Inca and other South American cultures, though it’s not clear whether this opposite pose would have represented something good or bad—maybe both.

Whatever the people of Lapa do Santo intended, this decapitation is an important glimpse into the ritual dismemberment of human remains, says Michelle Bonogofsky of the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote a book on decapitations. She has seen skulls plastered, painted, and decorated, but has never seen a skull posed with severed hands.

“I found a head that had two feet in front of it once,” says Verano. “It seemed to be a sign of disrespect. But never the hands.”

Reference: The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil). Andre Strauss et al. PLOS ONE, published online September 23, 2015. http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0137456

26 thoughts on “Oldest Decapitated Head in New World Found in ‘Vogue’ Pose

  1. Could archaeologists first look at concrete physical explanations? The hands being placed as they are is compact, offsetting the triangular shape of the hands to form a rectangle that fits the face. Many peoples dismember corpses; some after temporary burial and “resurrection.” The Romans required the hand of a suicide to be cut off. Maybe the rest of corpse was eaten; not all cannibals go for the brains. The Iroquois found human legs to be easy to transport, like a deer or moose haunch. If this person died far from home territory, perhaps the head and hands were all that could be carried easily. If it was a death by horrific injury or sudden and inconvenient, perhaps these parts were all that was salvaged. I think our ancestors were far more practical than our imaginations allow.

  2. ^Gina makes an excellent point. Is it possible for forensic archaeologists to determine if the decapitation occurred pre-mortem or post-mortem, or have they already? The conclusion points us to either one of the earliest cases of the human capacity for evil as the final act of a dark, ritualized murder, or to its capacity for sentimentality and even sweetness, if this was the work of a loved one preserving the memory of someone lost. Fascinating either way; one scenario revealing a dark vision of humanity at its origins, the other its redeeming quality of trancendental love. I’m hoping it’s the latter, though the cynical smart money might be on the former. Great work and thanks to all involved!

    1. Thanks for the question. It’s very difficult to determine the cause of death for this young man, especially since the rest of the body was not buried with the skull (or at least has not been found). The archaeologists think that the head and hands were buried with the flesh attached, so this was a fresh corpse when it was decapitated. But we don’t know how he died.

  3. An uneducated guess but what if the hands were meant to cradle the skull in a symbolic gesture? Several parts of the body are used to identify people like hands and the face, was this meant so that who ever buried this specimen did not want to be “seen” by the gods they worshipped?

  4. I think it just happened to be the way the body parts got stuffed together. Maybe it fit better in the box that way or propped the head from rolling around when being carried.

  5. I don’t like how you are using native advertisement in your article. I would have appreciated this piece more if you were not promoting the online course for forensics.

    1. I’m sorry you felt like it was an ad for the online course — it’s not intended that way at all; I’m just taking the course and genuinely enjoy it and recommend it to readers who are interested. To clarify, I have no association with the course or the University of Dundee apart from taking the course, which is offered free online.

  6. I was wondering if the position of the hands on the face represented (what I think it is called) the Yang,Lang (or something similar) symbol, used now in modern day the symbol is like two tadpoles, one black and one white, swimming in opposite directions, in a circle, and is meant to represent peace or balance.

  7. If he /she was carted home for eating the head, hands, feet and guts are heavy or have very little meat on them, and look the most human when dismembered. If you chuck a head in a hole, and the hands in (palm down) after you have a 1 in 8 chance of getting that arrangement, and you cover the eyes so they don’t stare at you after death, and keep the sand out of their eyes and mouth. KISS. It is normal now-days to cut the feet and head from meat b4 carting it out of the bush, and burying it prevents other animals being scared off later. The rear feet could have been used to tie a carrying rope to, or have been tossed somewhere else.

  8. In India there is a practice of using human skull as drinking utensil among followers of Tantra religious sect. It is believed that Tantra is older than Vedic and Buddhist religion. During subsequent periods Hindus and Buddhists adopted several practices of Tantraism. However, pure Tantraism is now almost disappeared from Indian religious practice.

  9. Perhaps as with some British Stone Age skeletal remains, there was a period of drying the flesh from the bones before a ritual burial of the most important or symbolic parts of that person. In some cases it’s a needs must style gathering of body parts that signify the wholeness of a person.

  10. It looks more like she was covering her face in horror at the news that you betrayed your subscribers and sold to Fox. Congrats! You have documented that corpses do literally spin in their graves over travesties and injustices.

  11. the skull could be removed and hands placed over eyes to indicate this person was involved in bad medicine (witch craft). Northern aboriginals would bury these people face down to render them powerless after death.

  12. A place to look for clues might be the archaeological record of Siberia, as scant as that might be. Is there anything at all similar to this found in the culture of native Americans’ distant relatives?

  13. Have tests proved these hands belong to the same person as the skull, or is it just assumed? Perhaps it was a form of punishment to the killers, or a sign of mourning from family members?

  14. The article doesn’t give the context of the find – what other artifacts or evidence of material culture has been found at the site? Why are people excavating there in the first place?

  15. Hand up Hand down. If this was fleshy, then the pinky finger could kind of hook in between the thumb and pointer finger quite well. Much better than both hands pointing upward as the thumbs side by side would fall away. Kind of interlace as the thumb of the other hand would go between the pink and ring finger groove. Maybe they did not have string in those days…and considering there is no arms, no extra weight.
    Or they were artsy, or just fooling around with the victim?

  16. I am no Professor, but in my youth I conducted an unorthodox amount of research into certain subjects. That I was curious about and that were of interest to me.

    The Picture of the skull and hands, that you show. I have seen it before many years ago, or something very similar.

    This would be in reference to Legend, Mythology and preventive religious rites.

    The persons that did this to the individual, as a group or society. Did so because they thought, the Individual was (Bad or Evil, Spirit or Demon, Monster or something else) or whatever the belief was in that time period.
    They did this as a preventative measure to stop, the individual from returning or causing further problems. (If there had been more, it could also have been applied to tribal war etc.).

    There are examples of this in various forms, in every society, country and religion throughout history.

    The lack of a body, No burial preparation, The hands. Are all things done for the purpose of preventing, stopping, hindering and confusing the Individual. Apparently without the body it is not going anywhere and if it is not close, it will not come together. With the hands covering the eyes and mouth it can not use them against then living or call out for help, to whatever would help it. With hands in opposing directions, it is confused and does not know where it is or where it should go. Depending on the original position of the skull. The hands would be holding it back or pushing it down.

    If you have not already considered it, I might suggest taking a look at Legends, Mythology and preventive religious rites. Of all countries and all religions. Also do not be satisfied with knowledge they have now, Add to it knowledge from before. Many things disappear from books, teaching and memories over time for one reason or another, some of it is quite useful.

    Then again this is only one scenario. Only that individual will ever know for sure what he or she is doing there in that condition.

  17. Please allow me a question: do the hands belong to the same body of the skull for sure? and a pedantry: ‘decapitated head’ does not sound well, as ‘decapitated’ means ‘from which the head has been cut’; thus … a head that lost its head.

  18. En el último comentario, se menciona la posibilidad de canibalismo. Es muy posible, máxime si el cuerpo no está, pero también podríamos relacionarlo con el inicio de la reducción de cabezas. Un Profesor ( Un Cura Jesuíta ) en el Colegio al que asistió mi hermano, 1958. Tenía una cabeza humana reducida procedente de una región Brasileña donde Él fué Misionero.
    En algún momento se debe haber iniciado esta práctica.

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