More than 9,000-year-old decapitated head discovered in Brazil

Skull is oldest known to have been severed in the Americas

oldest skull

CHOPPED  The Americas’ oldest known instance of human decapitation, a more than 9,000-year-old skull, has been discovered in Brazil.

Mauricio de Paiva  

A human skull found in a Brazilian rock-shelter represents the oldest known case of decapitation in the Americas, researchers report September 23 in PLOS ONE.

Radiocarbon dating places the skull at between 9,127 and 9,438 years old, says a team led by André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. That’s at least 4,000 years older than previous evidence of severed heads in South America and at least 1,000 years older than reported decapitation cases in North America. The skull might even be the oldest instance of decapitation in the world, Strauss says.

Excavation of a small pit in the rock-shelter in July 2007 produced the skull. A pair of severed hands covered the skull’s face. Incisions on one of six human neck bones in the pit denoted where the individual’s head had been cut off.

Chemical analyses of a fossil tooth indicate that the decapitated person grew up eating local foods, as did 17 other ancient people interred in the rock-shelter. Head removal occurred after death as part of a ritual treatment of the body, Strauss suspects.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated October 13, 2013, to correct the number of ancient people in the rock-shelter who also ate local foods.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Anthropology