9,000-year-old skull may be oldest known case of ritual decapitation

The man's skull was found in a rock shelter. His hands had been cut off and were resting on his face.

Story highlights

  • The skull of a man was found in a rock shelter in Lapa do Santo, Brazil
  • Researchers say the decapitation was not the result of a murder but probably a burial practice

(CNN)A 9,000-year-old skull found in Brazil may be the oldest case of ritual decapitation in the New World, scientists say.

The skull of a man found in a rock shelter in Lapa do Santo shows a cranium with amputated hands resting on the man's face.
    Researchers said the decapitation was not the result of a murder but probably a burial practice during the culture's early Archaic period.
    It was part of burial rituals that included the "manipulation of the body," said Andre Strauss, lead researcher of the study, which appeared in the journal PLOS ONE.
    "Lapa do Santo's inhabitants seemed to use the human body to express their cosmological principles regarding death," he said.
    The decapitation was considered a ritual among hunter-gatherers in the area during a period referred to as the Holocene, experts say.
    "This ritualized decapitation attests to the early sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas," Strauss said.
    "Geographically, it expands the known range of decapitation in more than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles), showing that during the early Holocene, this was not a phenomenon restricted to the western part of the continent as previously assumed."
    The skull is more than 3,000 years older than previous known evidence of decapitation in South America.
    The remains were found in 2007, but the testing results appeared in the journal Wednesday.
    Strauss and his colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany detailed the findings.