The archaeological team, including a likely descendant of the prehistoric California people being studied, re-created one of the burials in an image.

Ancient California burials show a macabre way to honor the dead

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Different societies approach death in a great variety of ways. One community in California about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago honored their dead by burying the deceased headless in some cases or with skulls and skullcaps of apparent relatives or ancestors in others, says a researcher from the University of California-Davis.

Professor Jelmer W. Eerkens, an archaeologist who is an expert in prehistoric California, likens the practice to modern people keeping the ashes of their cremated loved ones or photos of the deceased, according to Western Digs .

The site of the burials is at Marsh Creek near Brentwood, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) east of Oakland. About 500 burials, cooking fires, food-preparation tools and other tools were discovered during a construction project in 2002. Archaeologists determined that some artifacts at the site date back 7,000 years.

The burials of 130 people, however, range from about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating. Seven of the burials had remains of people with no heads. These included two men, two women and three whose sex could not be determined. Eight burials had complete skeletons but with an extra skull alongside. These included two women, four men and two of indeterminate sex.

Two of the burials, men in their late 30s or early 40s, had in the graves a skullcap or pate that may have been used as a bowl. One of the calottes, as they are called, was fashioned from the skull of an adolescent and was smooth and painted with red ochre.

Keeping bones of the deceased was even more common in Europe through at least the 18th century AD than in prehistoric California, as can be seen in the skulls of ‘the Martyrs of Otranto’ in Otranto Cathedral, Italy.

Keeping bones of the deceased was even more common in Europe through at least the 18 th century AD than in prehistoric California, as can be seen in the skulls of ‘the Martyrs of Otranto’ in Otranto Cathedral, Italy. Andrea Marutti/ Flickr

None of the skeletons showed any sign of pre-mortem violence, such as sharp point wounds or skull fractures, as is common in other prehistoric California burials. Earlier this month, Dr. Eerkens told Ancient Origins about a study that analyzed more than 16,000 skeletons of Native Americans buried across 2,500 years. The study showed about 1 in 15 people in prehistoric central California sustained some type of wound, whether by arrow- or spearpoint or being clubbed on the head. That is a rate far higher than Europe of the Middle Ages, he said.

Among the findings at the Marsh Creek site are this stone house from 7,000 years ago.

Among the findings at the Marsh Creek site are this stone house from 7,000 years ago. (Photo by John Marsh Historic Trust/ Wikimedia Commons )

 “Overall, there appears to low rates of violence at the site, much lower than at sites dating later in time,” Dr. Eerkens told Ancient Origins in e-mail. “Note that we’re not saying the people who lived at Marsh Creek were entirely peaceful, only that rates of violence were much lower 3,000-4,000 years ago than between 2,500 and 200 years ago. What we are saying is that some of the previous evidence that has been used to suggest there were higher rates of violence at Marsh Creek, that being the headless bodies and extra skulls buried with people, is not, in fact, clearly the byproduct of violence. We believe those extra skulls and headless bodies had to do with mortuary practices and ancestor worship, not violence. That’s what our stable isotope data suggest.”

He and his team speculate the heads of the bodies with missing heads were placed in the graves of their children, from whom they may have been separated by death at an early age. Two of the burials with extra heads show signs of a sudden drop in nitrogen at a young age, perhaps because of early weaning. The researchers speculate the children were sort of reunited with their mothers’ heads later, after the children too died.

Two of the bodies were buried with calottes or skullcaps

Two of the bodies were buried with calottes or skullcaps (Courtesy Jelmer W. Eerkens)

Dr. Eerkens and his team, which includes a likely descendant of the people they are studying, Ramona Garibay of the Ohlone Tribe, published the results of their findings in American Antiquity journal.

Earlier, researchers assumed the remains of these 15 people were some type of war trophies, a practice that was common during prehistoric times in California.

However, Dr. Eerkens and his team analyzed the strontium and nitrogen content of 200 people buried there. By looking at strontium, which is absorbed into the human body from water, scientists can tell roughly where a person was raised. A person who lived in an area with high strontium content in the water will have more strontium than a person who lived in an area with low content. The nitrogen content can reveal clues about what types of food a person ate.

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