Relief depicting beheading on one of the panels of the South Ball Court at Tajin, Veracruz, Mexico

Decapitation discovery reveals gruesome practices of the ancient Incas

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In the Andes region, in Bolivia, on the shores of Lake Titicaca archaeologists have recently made a distinctly gruesome discovery at a site known as Wata Wata , in the form of three decapitated heads.

The heads belong to one male and two female adults, all of whom had suffered considerable violence as part of an act of execution, around the time of death or after it.

Pre-Columbian art often depicts acts of decapitation as authors such as Christopher L. Moser have pointed out. The practice is also known from the ballcourt game that was commonly played by all the Mesoamerican cultures prior to the arrival of the Spanish, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs. According to Kathleen Cohen , the game began to feature sacrificial elements when the Maya took it over from the Toltecs. Archaeologists had mostly dismissed these depictions as figurative, but recent evidence, including the discovery of a collection of decapitated human heads, has provided physical proof of its existence among Pre-Columbian cultures.

Relief sculpture from the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, depicting a decapitated ballplayer.

Relief sculpture from the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, depicting a decapitated ballplayer. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Wata Wata, otherwise known as Inti-Wata, is an important cultural site, known for its historical remains dating from the Inca period. The site is located on the shores of and very close to the Isla del Sol (‘ Island of the Sun ’) where there are over 80 Inca sites dating from the 15 th century. Archaeologists believe that this area may have been occupied as far back as the third millennium BC. The site itself contains evidence of Inca agriculture and small-scale industry, including areas for building ships of reeds, tool making and weaving. The area is also the home of the Kallawayas, a group of traditional healers who can trace their descendants back to the Tiwanaku culture and the pre-Inca period.

The terraces of Inti Wata, Bolivia

The terraces of Inti Wata, Bolivia ( Wikimedia Commons )

It has been thought so far that decapitation among the Inca were relatively rare. The most well-known practitioners were the Jivaro Indians , who remained unconquered by the Spaniards because of their ferocity. They were known for their taking and shrinking of human heads. Pre-Incan cultures such as the Lambayeque or Sican people also practiced decapitation, as shown by a discovery of decapitated remains around a pyramid in northern Peru in 2011. Other groups, such as the occupants of the city of La Quemada in Mexico, practiced cannibalism and hung up the bones of their enemies for all to see.

Shrunken head, Ecuador.

Shrunken head, Ecuador. Image credit: Ancient Origins

However, more recently, the discovery of three human heads in the city of Cuzco by archaeologists suggests that the Incas did indeed take heads, displaying them as trophies after a battle.

The remains discovered at Wata Wata can be dated to between 200 AD and 800 AD, a time of transition between the Late Formative Period and the Tiwanaku Period.  Two of the skulls of the victims had been subjected to the ancient practice of cranial vault modification involving binding the head during childhood in such a manner as to produce a flattened or cone-shaped head.

The study of the Wata Wata site was conducted by Sara Becker and Sonia Alconini of the University of California, Riverside and the University of Texas, San Antonia . Their findings were published in the Journal of Latin American Antiquity . They found that the three individuals had experienced considerable violence at or around time of death. This included beheading, cranial and facial fracturing, defleshing, jaw removal and possible eye extraction. The male adult had his nose broken and may also have been clubbed to death, as was one of the females. It’s likely that all three were already dead by the time the perpetrators set about removing their flesh. The heads were then entombed in a ritual cache that was sealed with a capstone.

One of the decapitated skulls showing healed cranial trauma: (a) close-up of cut marks around the eye orbit.

One of the decapitated skulls showing healed cranial trauma: (a) close-up of cut marks around the eye orbit. Credit: Becker and Alconini.

The beheading of the victims was significant on the basis that skulls in Andean societies were often regarded as symbols of power, both in life and the afterlife. From this Becker and Alconini conclude that this gruesome fate was inflicted on them in order to depose them as leaders , removing their authority and influence, rather than as part of a cult to appease gods or ancestor spirits. The deaths of the victims may also have been a method of signalling to the community important changes in the order of things during a political transition.


Robin Whitlock's picture

Good to see a lively debate going on here. One thing I would point out though is that there are numerous hints in world mythology that indicate human sacrifice, particularly decapitation, was an accepted practice at some point in ancient history. For example, there is the legend attached to the Capitoline hill in Rome in which the hill got its name because a skull was discovered while the foundations were being laid for the Temple of Jupiter (from the Latin ‘caput’ meaning ‘head’). Anne Ross in Pagan Celtic Britain argues that there is ample evidence for head-taking in Celtic Britain and Europe (the ‘head shrines’ at Entremont and Roquepertuse in Southern France may also support this conclusion). The thinking goes, as far as I can remember, that the Celts believed the soul or spirit resided in the head, therefore the Celts often used to decorate their huts with the skulls of enemy chieftains or prisoners, either as trophies or perhaps as ‘guardians’ to ward off evil spirits. But of course that is open to debate and Ross’s arguments have themselves been challenged.


I read that the Maya, whilst using blood-letting rituals amongst the aristocracy, did not generally indulge in human sacrifice. The theory was that tribal groups, defeated and displaced by Aztec expansion, brought ritual human sacrifice with them. The sculpture seems to support this.
As far as condescending attitudes to Meso America are concerned, it's possible to be violent and technically sophisticated simultaneously, as much of the human race is currently demonstrating.


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