The Earliest Example of Decapitation and Why Archaeologists Should Learn to Draw

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie, October 6, 2015.

That title is not a mistake. When I read the recent articles about the earliest example of a decapitation, my first thought was “wow, look at those illustrations; we really need to teach archaeologists to do this more”. Maybe it is because I get to read articles about decapitation fairly frequently, maybe I’m jaded- but seriously… the eye-catching thing abou this is the amazing illustrations and what they do to forward this argument. I’m getting ahead of myself. You’re probably here for the decapitation, right? Let’s focus on that first!

In a new PNAS article by Strauss et al. (2015) examines evidence of what is the earliest example of a decapitation, dating from approximately 9,100-9,400 years ago. Prior to this, in South America, the oldest decapitation reported was found at the site of Asia 1 in Peru and dates to 3,000 years ago. The practice of decapitation in South America has been reported in both archaeological and ethnographic evidence. European colonizers often pointed out the rituals of this continent involving display of human trophies such as heads. Skulls have been noted as important ritual objects in South American groups such as the Arara Indians who displayed the skulls of enemies on poles, the Inca who used heads as trophies to demonstrate their military prowess, and the Munduruku who beheaded defeated enemies and then mummified their heads. One of the more famous examples is the ritual of the Jivaro, who produced the shrunken heads that are famously copied using monkey skulls and sold to tourists. Archaeological examples of decapitation from skeletal remains or artwork is found among the Chimus (900-1470 CE), the Wari (600-1100 CE), the Tiwanaku (300-1000 CE), the Moche (100-700 CE), the Nazca (100 BCE-800 CE), and at Chavin de Huantat (1200-500 BCE). Strauss et al. (2015) propose that their recent finding is the oldest example and also demonstrate the broad extent of decapitation across South America.

The site of Lapa do Santo (Saint’s Rock Shelter) is located in the northern part of Brazil. Excavations of the site took place from 2001 to 2009, and evidence demonstrated use of the shelter began around 12,700 to 11,700 years ago. It was occupied by a hunter-gatherer group with low mobility. A total of 26 human burials were excavated, and these date from 10,600 to 8,200 years ago with different trends found. The first thousand years is characterized by shallow burial of individuals in a flexed position, followed by an emphasis on mutilation and reduction of the body through defleshing and burning, and finally in the last five centuries is characterized by disarticulation without manipulation.

Fig 8 from Strauss et al. (2015) Burial 26. a) Pit shape; b) Arrangement of the hands over the skull. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.g008

Fig 8 from Strauss et al. (2015) Burial 26.
a) Pit shape; b) Arrangement of the hands over the skull.

The decapitation case is found during the second phase of burial practices at Lapa do Santo, and dates from 9,100-9,400 years ago. It was found within the main cluster of burials, and included three distinct groupings of bone: a skull with the manible and six vertebrae, an articulated left hand, and an articulated right hand with portions of the radius. The hands were laid over the face, with the right hand on the left side with fingers pointing to the chin, and the left hand on the right side of the skull with fingers pointing to the forehead. Cutmarks were found on the skull, vertebrae and hands, suggesting two procedures occurred: 1) soft tissue was removed from the body, and 2) the individual was decapitated. The individual was a young male and likely lived locally.

Based on the evidence, Strauss et al. (2015) argue that the decapitation in this scenario was not an act of violence. More likely, the individual’s remains were manipulated after death as part of some type of ancestral ritual or act of veneration. The careful arrangement of the hands over the face may have been an important aspect of the ritual and supported group beliefs about the afterlife.

Fig 5 from Strauss et al. (2015) Schematic representation of Burial 26 from Lapa do Santo. Drawing by Gil Tokyo. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137456.g005

Fig 5 from Strauss et al. (2015) Schematic representation of Burial 26 from Lapa do Santo.
Drawing by Gil Tokyo.

The argument made by Strauss et al. (2015) regarding the cutmarks, placement and rituals aspects of the burial are strengthened by the amazing illustration that they produced. The first image on this page shows the photograph of the grave, and it is fairly difficult to see in that image what is actually happening (it kind of looks like a monster skull or something!). However, using illustration allows one to focus the reader on the evidence that adds to the argument. It produces a clearer image that shows possible original placement, where the cutmarks are found, how the bones relate to one another in the burial, and is overall much easier to understanding than the photograph. I am a major proponent of using illustration as a means for clarifying evidence. An illustration is a biased interpretation- it doesn’t have the same contextual information, it may add extra evidence that the team didn’t originally see but is inferring, and it reduces detail- but often that can be a positive thing, because it allows the illustrator to show the reader what the research team believes is most important and how they are conceptualizing.

So a piece of advice. If you’re planning on being an archaeologist, take a class in illustration. Being able to translate complex thoughts into an image can be a major benefit to your research. Sketching material in the field, drawing artifacts to emphasize important features, and illustrating possible reconstructions are all great ways of promoting your argument. Your art doesn’t have to be perfect- just good enough to get your point across or good enough for a professional artist to render into an accurate image. But that isn’t the only benefit- Jennifer Landin argued recently on Scientific American’s blog that illustrating can be a powerful tool for learning. In order to draw good scientific illustrations, one needs to understand how the organism or object really functions. Drawing a good skeleton means understanding why skeletons are shaped the way they are, how the bones relate to one another, and how the articulate and function. Drawing helps you learn, it clarifies your argument, and it allows you to convey things in a manner that words cannot do.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgStrauss A, Oliveira RE, Bernardo DV, Salazar-García DC, Talamo S, Jaouen K, Hubbe M, Black S, Wilkinson C, Richards MP, Araujo AG, Kipnis R, & Neves WA (2015). The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil). PloS one, 10 (9) PMID: 26397983

Landin, Jennifer 2015. Redixcovering the forgotten benefits of drawing. Scientific American.

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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