Evidence of Gruesome 9,500-Year-Old Funerary Rites Found in Brazil

Evidence of Gruesome 9,500-Year-Old Funerary Rites Found in Brazil

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Evidence of complex and gruesome funeral rites found in the Lapa do Santo cave in Brazil have shocked researchers yet again. The researchers have discovered evidence of the mutilation of corpses, including the removal of flesh, muscles, and teeth, exposure to fire, and possible cannibalism. This is added to a previous discovery of a decapitated skull found at the site last year.

According to the news agent Seeker, the 9,500-year-old remains are the oldest examples of complex funeral rituals in the area. "This finding testifies that a great cultural diversity was already present in South America already 10,000 years ago," one of the lead researchers, André Strauss, told Discovery News .

A skull showing burn marks and intentional removal of teeth.

A skull showing burn marks and intentional removal of teeth. ( Mauricio de Paiva )

Although Lapa do Santo was a burial ground for bodies beginning about 10,000 and 10,600 years ago, the more complex rites didn’t begin until between 9,400 and 9,600 years ago. The manipulation of the deceased’s bones seemed to have faded from popularity by between 8,200-8,600 years ago.

Lapa do Santo is an archaeological site in the Lagoa Santa karst in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. It has been occupied since at least 12,000 years ago. The archaeological evidence shows that the people from the Holocene period were “hunter-gathers with low mobility and a subsistence strategy focused on gathering plant foods and hunting small and mid-sized mammals” [Strauss et al. via PLOS One ] The site has been known of since the 19th century because of the Danish naturalist Peter Lund.

Lapa do Santo, Brazil.

Lapa do Santo, Brazil. ( PLOS ONE )

Furthermore, the researchers wrote in 2015 in the journal PLOS ONE that “The oldest evidence of rock art in South America, including a pictorial tradition that depicts phallic imagery, was also found engraved on the bedrock of Lapa do Santo, under four meters of excavated sediments.”

For the current research, the international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and the University of São Paulo, Brazil studied 26 burials from 9,500 years ago. Speaking on the modifications of the dead, Strauss said :

“The burials included bones with cutting and chopping marks, exposure to fire, a head buried with amputated hands and skulls in which all teeth were intentionally removed. In one case a skull cap was used as funerary receptacle. The mutilated and burnt bones of the same individual were deposited inside.”

A skull cap used as a funerary receptacle in which the mutilated and burnt bones of the same individual were deposited.

A skull cap used as a funerary receptacle in which the mutilated and burnt bones of the same individual were deposited. ( Max Planck Institute )

The burning of soft tissues and evidence of possible human gnaw markings on some of the remains led to the suggestion of possible cannibalism practices.

The Daily Mail says that the researchers do not provide a reason why the grisly funerary practices began, however some Brazilian tribes were known to have eaten the deceased to honor and have a permanent connection with their relatives.

In September 2015, Ancient Origins reported that the oldest beheading case in the world was also discovered by the researchers at Lapa do Santo. Carbon 14 testing allowed the team to prove the decapitated skull came from between 9,438 and 9,127 years ago. This means that decapitation took place in South America at least 4,500 years earlier than was previously believed.

Photographs of skull 26 at the burial site, Lapa do Santo, Brazil.

Photographs of skull 26 at the burial site, Lapa do Santo, Brazil. ( PLOS ONE )

Although a decapitated head was often used as a trophy for many ancient cultures, the researchers were adamant that this was no trophy head. As they wrote in the journal  PLoS ONE :

Trophy heads usually have holes through which strings are passed to carry or to display the skull. Or they have a thickened foramen magnum, a point where the spine is inserted into the skull as a result of impalement for a public exhibition. Moreover, strontium isotopic values ​​similar to those of the rest of the people buried there suggests that the individual was a member of the local community, not an outsider .”

But this head had no holes, and the foramen magnum was no thicker than normal. 

The decapitated skull.

The decapitated skull. ( André Strauss )

Top Image: One of the burials found at the site of Lapa do Santo, Brazil in 2011. Source: Max Planck Institute

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