Hopewell skulls pose a mystery
The Hopewell culture describes a widely dispersed set of related Native American populations that flourished along The Ohio River Valley from 200 BC to 500 AD. The culture is characterised by its construction of enclosures made of earthen walls, often built in geometric patterns, and mounds of various shapes. Over the years, archaeologists have excavated numerous remains of people who were buried separately from their heads. Hopewell artisans also sculpted representations of decapitated heads and headless human torsos. Scholars have long debated the interpretation of these occurrences – were the heads removed as war trophies, or were they honoured as revered ancestors?
Mounds at Hopewell. Photo credit: Wikipedia
Many of the skulls that were recovered were found to be modified. Skulls, crania, and jaws had been drilled, ground, incised or shaped. It is also known that the skulls were put on display evident by the staffs that have been found still attached to some skulls. But were they displayed as trophies as a symbol of prestige and prowess, or was it away to remember and pay respect to loved ones?
Those that support the former opinion have pointed to the fact that most of the skulls that have been found belonged to young adult males, which suggests they belonged to defeated warriors. Scholars supporting the opposing view have pointed out that the Hopewell settlements do not suggest warring societies as the hamlets were not surrounded by protective walls and the extensive interaction network of the Hopewell more or less requires that at least certain people could travel relatively freely across social boundaries.
A study recently published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology may offer some further clues. Anthropologists at the University of Sao Paulo and the University of Cambridge analysed 112 human skulls collected in Borneo in the late 19th century, the so-called Dayak skulls. This collection represents well-documented cases of headhunting and, therefore, offered a useful comparison to the Hopewell skulls.
According to the study, about 60 percent of the head-hunter skulls show signs of violence. However, unlike the Dayak skulls, the Hopewell skulls do not display any signs of trauma or violence, only cut marks associated with the removal of the head. Furthermore, evidence of violent trauma is virtually absent from the skeletons.
While many would argue that the debate is far from over, the authors concluded that the detached Hopewell skulls are more likely to have belonged to honoured ancestors and were used in ceremonies.
Featured image: A Hopewell skull. Photo source