A pretty gruesome discovery in east-central Brazil has demonstrated that ceremonial decapitation was part of cultural practice 9000 years ago. Whilst modern society is horrified by the cultural decapitation of a corpse, this new discovery suggests that the hunter-gatherers of ancient Brazil had mortuary rights associated with the post-mortem manipulation of the body. Previously, cultural decapitation was known from Andean peoples so this new discovery extends the practice to the eastern side of the continent. The authors of the study, published in PLOSOne, suggest that the absence of goods or architecture may mean that the decapitation might have been a means of expressing cosmological beliefs about the death of the individual.
We present here evidence for an early Holocene case of decapitation in the New World (Burial 26), found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in 2007. An ultra-filtered AMS age determination on a fragment of the sphenoid provided an age range of 9.1–9.4 cal kyBP for Burial 26. The interment was composed of an articulated cranium, mandible and first six cervical vertebrae. Cut marks with a v-shaped profile were observed in the mandible and sixth cervical vertebra. The right hand was amputated and laid over the left side of the face with distal phalanges pointing to the chin and the left hand was amputated and laid over the right side of the face with distal phalanges pointing to the forehead.