Largest Headhunting Massacre from Neolithic China Unearthed
Evidence of the bloodiest decapitation and head-hunting in Neolithic Asian history, has been unearthed from China, from 4,100 years ago. In total, 41 skeletons were recovered, all belonging to women and children. Archaeologists recovered an additional four skulls belonging to men from a pit outside the house, and cultural remains too in the form of pottery and bone-rock tools.
Decapitation: A Headhunting Ritual
Decapitation has deep historical roots as a form of violence, reflecting the dynamics of interpersonal conflicts and the evolution of complex human societies. The study, published in the journal, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, employed visual inspections and imaging techniques to identify signs of decapitation, explained the authors in their publishing. The researchers found that 32 of the 41 beheadings had occurred in a single event!
An aerial view of the mass grave. (Qian Wang/Texas A&M University School of Dentistry)
Cut marks on the cervical vertebrae of five individuals indicated that their heads had been severed from the front of the neck. In addition to missing heads, the cervical vertebrae at the Honghe site exhibited cut marks from sharp tools, providing strong evidence of the practice of decapitation.
Tools with bone handles and stone blades, used during the Neolithic Age, have been discovered at various sites, including the Honghe site and others in northeast China. (Qian Wang/Texas A&M University School of Dentistry)
These cutting tools were likely bone-handled instruments with stone blades, consistent with findings in the Honghe area, paralleling the same technique across the board in the perpetrator’s techniques and weapons. They indicate “the presence of a conscious head-hunting behavior”.
Burial M104, identified as a male aged 35–40 years at the time of death, included a sword with a bone handle and a stone blade (indicated by a red arrow) among the accompanying grave items. (Qian Wang/Texas A&M University School of Dentistry)
"Heads of enemy tribes were sought after for a specific ritual meaning, to conquer and/or possess the soul and energy of the enemies," study senior author Qian Wang, a professor of biomedical sciences at Texas A&M University School of Dentistry, told Live Science in an email. "No such headless burials were found during the Neolithic Age in China, except for some heads for sacrificial rituals."
Decapitation was from the ventral side, with the left hand tilting the victim’s head backwards, with the implement in the right hand, while the head was cut off. Scientifically, the head was severed through separating the head and the axis, and the axis and the third cervical in the neck.
Headhunting was a practice observed in various regions of Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. In this context, headhunting was often motivated by a combination of ritualistic, social, and territorial factors. Tribes and indigenous groups engaged in headhunting as a means of acquiring spiritual power, symbolizing their dominance over rival communities, and appeasing ancestral spirits.
Headhunting has been traced back to 4,100 years. (Qian Wang/Texas A&M University School of Dentistry)
The severed heads were revered as trophies, and the act of taking an enemy's head was seen as a display of courage and martial skill, elevating the status of successful headhunters within their societies. Additionally, headhunting was used to settle disputes, assert territorial control, and, in some cases, exact revenge on rival tribes.
Over time, with the influence of outside forces and changing cultural norms, headhunting practices declined or were abolished in many of these regions. Today, headhunting as a cultural practice in Asia is largely a historical phenomenon.
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Women and Children: Off-Limits During Warfare?
Targeting women and children, generally a code of honor violated in warfare in only the most inhumane circumstances, is a reflection of the worst forms of cruelty. It is probable that selective decapitation was employed as a method to exacerbate the violence or torture the living. One possibility is that the Honghe people, who were a community of farmers, hunters, and fishers, were engaged in active conflicts with neighboring tribes, as indicated by the presence of defensive trenches within the settlement.
The victims were solely women or children, and signs of decapitation, such as incisions on the cervical vertebrae, were discovered on their skeletal remains. (Qian Wang/Texas A&M University School of Dentistry)
It's conceivable that during a period of conflict, a rival tribe may have attacked the Honghe settlement while the adult men were absent. In the aftermath of the assault, the attackers may have taken the heads of the victims as trophies. Upon the return of the male members of the community, they might have moved the bodies to two houses for a basic burial before ultimately abandoning the settlement.
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Meanwhile, the four bodiless skulls may have been trophies brought by the Honghe tribe from another tribe. It is important to note that the rest of the individuals in the mass graves did not exhibit cut marks, indicating a different method of decapitation perhaps.
Top image: The biggest massacre involving headhunting discovered in Neolithic Asia, specifically in China. Source: Qian Wang/Texas A&M University School of Dentistry
By Sahir Pandey
Gao, G., Zhang, Q., et al. 2023. The largest headhunting event in prehistoric Asia: evidence of mass decapitation at the 4100‐year‐old Neolithic Age Honghe site, Heilongjiang, China. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-023-01845-x.
Sagar, S. 2023. Headless skeletons in China represent the largest known headhunting massacre from Neolithic Asia. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/archaeology/headless-skeletons-in-china-represent-the-largest-known-headhunting-massacre-from-neolithic-asia.