The Nazca Head-hunters and their Trophy Heads
The Nazca culture of Peru is perhaps most well-known for the enigmatic Nazca Lines , hundreds of lines and stylized images built into the Peruvian coastal plain. Yet, there is more to this ancient South American civilisation than the mysterious geoglyphs. For instance, the Nazca culture is known to have engaged in the practise of headhunting. This is evident in the so-called ‘trophy heads’. Although these ‘trophy heads’ were first attested in the iconography of Nazca pottery, it has been substantiated by the discovery of at least 100 heads since the early 20 th century.
Based on analyses of these heads, it has been suggested that the head was first removed from the body by slicing through the neck and separating the cervical vertebrae with a sharp obsidian knife. Then, the base of the skull was broken away, and the soft tissue, including the tongue, muscles and throat structure were discarded. Through this opening, the brain and its supporting membranes were removed. The resulting cavity was often stuffed with cloth, and sometimes with vegetable matter. A small hole would then be punched or drilled into the centre of the forehead so that a rope could be threaded through. This rope would have been secured inside the head by a wooden toggle or a large knot, and is believed to have been used to hang the heads from a building or even to tie them around one’s waist. Finally, the lips were pinned shut using one or two long spines from the local huarango tree.
Example of a Nazca trophy head with the carrying rope. Photo source .
The term ‘trophy head’, first coined by the archaeologist Max Uhle, suggests that the heads were collected as trophies of war. Among proponents of this theory, however, there is a debate on the way the Nazca carried out their wars. Some scholars have suggested that the Nazca practised a form of ritual warfare, in which the main goal was to capture prisoners for decapitation, rather than for territorial expansion. Other scholars, however, have argued that the Nazca engaged in traditional warfare for control of land and other valuable resources, and that the collection of heads took place only after battle.
Regardless of the way the heads were obtained, scholars on both sides agree that the reason for collecting the heads and the way they were subsequently used were ritualistic in nature. The Nasca’s use of decapitated heads has been compared to that of the Jivaro (these are the Indians of eastern Peru and Ecuador, most famous perhaps for shrinking the decapitated heads of their victims), in which these prized objects were used in a variety of rituals before ceremonial entombment. In addition, decorations on Nazca pottery, show decapitated heads impaled on poles, hung from banners, carried around by warriors, and collected and displayed in groups. Moreover, the heads were buried next to cemeteries, thus suggesting their use in ritualistic activities that were linked to the dead.
A shrunken head of the Jivaro culture. Photo source .
The interpretation of the heads as ritual objects, however, is not accepted by everyone. Another interpretation of the ‘trophy heads’ is that they had a magical function. According to this interpretation, the heads of war captives were decapitated to appease the gods for a variety of reasons. This is similar to other cultures which practise human sacrifice, such as the Aztecs, which were aimed at placating the gods. This is based on the depictions of the heads being handled by divine beings, such as being held in the hands of and attached to the clothing of ‘Anthropomorphic Mythical Beings’, clutched in the hand of the ‘Mythical Killer Whale’, and being ingested by the ‘Horrible Bird’.
Xolotl, Aztec god with associations to death seen clutching sacrifice victim and decapitated head. Image source .
The magical function of these heads may be more complicated than merely appeasing the gods. It has been suggested that the offering of the heads to the gods was meant to insure the abundance of food crops. Human heads may have been a symbol of fertility, as some iconographic motifs display sprouting beans in the form of a ‘trophy head’ or an ear of corn with the face of a ‘trophy head’. Furthermore, the fact that the Nazcas were living in one of the harshest places on earth meant that it was important for them to do everything that they could to make sure that the harvests were good.
One final point regarding the ‘trophy heads’: Recent isotope analysis suggests that the majority of the heads were from the same population as the head-hunters. This could mean that some members of the Nazca community were sacrificed for the community’s greater well-being. On the other hand, it may support the theory that the heads were trophies of war, and that warfare, specifically in its ritualistic form, was directed at related communities. In short, there are many questions about the ‘trophy heads’ that are still unanswered, and hopefully they will be solved sometime in the future.