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.
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 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.
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.”
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).
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