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

Oldest Beheading Case in the World Discovered in Brazil

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Until recently, it was thought that human decapitation was a practice only present from about 3,000 years ago. Evidence had almost always been found in the Andean region, where beheading was in common use for millennia. However, all that is currently believed on this issue has just taken a turn, as a scientific team has documented the world's oldest decapitation, from more than 9,000 years ago. The terrible deed also took place far from the Andean region, more specifically in eastern Brazil, in a place located over 1,000 kilometers (621.4 miles) from the border with Bolivia.  

According to information published in the newspaper El Mundo, the international team of researchers responsible for this discovery includes members from the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. At the head of the study are the researchers André Strauss and Domingo Carlos Salazar-Garcia.

Headquarters of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

Headquarters of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. (Wikimedia Commons)

The team found the remains in a karst cave system called Lapa do Santo in 2007. The decapitated skull, cataloged and preserved as number 26, appeared in the archaeological site with the remains of 27 other individuals. Other skulls also presented certain "anomalies" or "curiosities." For example, one of the skulls has appeared with hundreds of teeth inside: the research on this particular skull is currently underway and its findings have yet to be published.

Thanks to carbon-14 testing, the decapitated skull has been dated to between 9,438 and 9,127 years ago. This dating was performed on the remains of collagen extracted from the sphenoid bone: a bone at the base of the skull. This date shows evidence that the practice of beheading took place at least 4,500 years earlier in South America than was previously believed.

For many ancient cultures, the act of beheading was meant as a means to forever separate the soul from the body. An enemy could take the head and keep it as a trophy - along with the strength and courage it was believed to hold; thus providing a series of magical, spiritual, and even supernatural powers to the headsman. It was as if the soul of the deceased could never rest after losing his head.

Lapa do Santo, east Brazil is the place where the skull was found in 2007 along with the remains of 27 other individuals.

Lapa do Santo, east Brazil is the place where the skull was found in 2007 along with the remains of 27 other individuals. (PLOS ONE)

In fact, in the present case, the beheading is framed in a clear ritual context. The researchers of the study 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.

The skull in question has no holes, and the foramen magnum was no thicker than normal.  Furthermore, in cases where the skulls are used as trophies, the heads will not usually be placed with bones from the postcraneal skeleton, such as vertebrae or other bones belonging to the torso, as they are commonly only used for some time and abandoned later. However, in the case of the decapitated skull found in Brazil, the jaw, six vertebrae, and both hands (placed in front of the face) are present with the burial. The position of the hands especially denotes a mortuary ritual, not trophy taking practices, as they are placed covering the eyes, with the fingers pointing up on one hand while the other points the fingers downward.

Until skull 26 was found, it was thought that beheading was an exclusively South American Andean phenomenon, but the new study disproves this idea, extending the possible practice of beheading to other regions of the continent. “ Surely other previously found remains will now be reviewed, and it would not surprise me if other signs of beheading appear,” Salazar said.

Skull number 26, found in Lapa do Santo, Brazil.

Skull number 26, found in Lapa do Santo, Brazil. (El Mundo/ Muricio de Paiva)

Skulls have been documented with the edges worked during the European Upper Paleolithic, ​​between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago. It is sometimes assumed that there was decapitation in these cases. But they have found no direct evidence that any were beheadings for certain. So, this current discovery could be the oldest beheading in history,” explained Salazar.

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

By Mariló T.A.

This article was first published in Spanish at and has been translated with permission.

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