Wari skulls create trophy-head mystery

From Tempe, Arizona, at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists

In parts of what’s now Peru, the Nasca and other prehistoric civilizations collected heads as spoils of war. Victorious warriors cut off the heads of vanquished enemies, drilled holes in their skulls to extract the brains, and modified these trophies for display and ritual use.

Trophy heads took a surprising twist, however, at a central Peruvian site inhabited by members of the Wari society from around A.D. 600 to 1000. A newly discovered stash of skull remains once used as trophy heads came mainly from children and from men too old to have served as warriors, says Tiffiny A. Tung of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Wari finds include pieces of trophy heads from at least 24 adults–most identifiable as male–and seven children, as well as 84 human-finger bones. All of these specimens had been intentionally burned and were found in two structures that had been used for ritual ceremonies. Most skulls contained holes drilled at the front and back of the braincase, as well as in the jaw, where a cord was apparently inserted.

Many skull pieces also exhibited worn edges, suggesting that they had been repeatedly handled, probably during rituals, Tung says.

The Wari specimens contain few of the warfare-related scars that have been observed widely on skeletal remains of Nasca trophy heads. For now, the story behind these macabre Wari relics remains a mystery, Tung says.


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

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