Oldest Case of Human Decapitation in New World Discovered in Brazil

Posted on September 23, 2015

Hands over the skull in ancient decapitation

The oldest case of human decapitation in the New World has been discovered by researchers in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in Brazil. A skull was found with its severed hands positioned over the skull. The researchers say this was a ceremonial burial.

The oldest previous decapitation was a 3,000-year-old burial found in the Andes. The researchers say it was assumed this type of decapitation was an Andean phenomenon. However, this new case is 6,000 years older than the Andes decapitation.

An international research team led by Andre Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany made the discovery. The burial included a skull, jaw, the first six cervical vertebrate and two severed hands of an adult male. The hands were placed on the skull in opposition to each other. The right hand was laid over the left side of the face while the left hand was laid over the right side of the face.

Ancient human decapitation diagram


Although this looks like some horrible thing an ancient people might do to an enemy the researchers think it was meant to show respect for one of their own. The researchers say the buried individual was a member of the community and this was not a violent act against a defeated enemy. They say the careful arrangement of the hands over the face was likely an "important public display."

Domingo Carlos Salazar-Garcia of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology says in the announcement, "The chemical analysis of strontium isotopes done in this study indicates that the decapitated individual was not an outsider to the group. Therefore, it was probably not a defeated enemy but instead a member of the community."

National Geographic has a large image of the skull and hands here. A research paper on the decapitation can be found here in the journal, PLoS One.

Photo: Andre Strauss
Diagram: Gil Tokyo