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Infant discovered at Salango, Ecuador, with a skull helmet. Source: Twitter.

Ecuadorian Infants Discovered Wearing Child Skull ‘Helmets’

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Archaeologists in Ecuador have found two buried infants wearing “helmets” fashioned from the skulls of two other children.

The ritual complex and funerary platform of Salango on the central coast of Ecuador dates to around 100 BC and was used by the Guangala culture. Between 2014 and 2016, the remains of 11 individuals were recovered that had been buried with shells and carved ancestor figurines and included in this excavation were two infants “wearing” other children’s skulls around their own.

Salango on the coast of Ecuador has a history known to date back 5000 years. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Salango on the coast of Ecuador has a history known to date back 5000 years. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

It is not uncommon for adult skulls to be found in South American burials but they are generally the remains of adults who died in war. The discovery of children is much less common, which makes these two children extra special. Lead researchers, Sara Juengst and Abigail Bythell, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Richard Lunniss and Juan José Ortiz Aguilu of the Universidad Técnica de Manabí in Ecuador have published their research on the curious babies in the journal  Latin American Antiquity .

Human Skull Death Helmets

One infant died at 18 months old, whom Juengst and colleagues said, was discovered wearing the modified cranium of a 4-12 year old juvenile in a “helmet-like” fashion around its own head. The second infant was about 6-9 months old at death and this child was found with a skull helmet made from another infant who had died between 2-12 years old.

Juengst and colleagues suggest these unusual symbolic burials at Salango might have been an attempt to ensure the protection of what the researchers called “pre-social and wild” souls. And the act of burying their children with carved stone ancestor figurines may have been a way of “further empowering” their heads, providing protection for the prematurely deceased children.

Guangala ancestor figurine, used in burial rituals. (Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Guangala ancestor figurine, used in burial rituals. (Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Skull Helmets For Protection

The team of researchers hope that in-progress DNA and isotope analyses will confirm if the infants and those children who became the “skull helmets” were related, but they say in their paper that various possibilities for the origin of the skulls exist, but that they think the burials are evidence of ancient traditions related to ideas about “rebirth”.

Ecuadorian burials made global headlines last month after archaeologists of the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) found three ancient burials in Atahualpa Canton dating from 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, belonging to the Las Vegas archaeological culture of the Stone Age . And two years ago, National Geographic announced the discovery of “the largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas”, and maybe in world, at Las Llamas on Peru's northern coast.

More than 140 children and 200 llamas were ritually sacrificed 550 years ago on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, near the capital of the Chimú Empire. The scientific team investigating the Las Llamas sacrifices in Peru are now unraveling the life histories of the young victims trying to figure out who they were and where they came from.

A shocking number of children’s bodies found in Peru. (© 2019 Gabriel Prieto et al / Plos ONE)

A shocking number of children’s bodies found in Peru.  (© 2019 Gabriel Prieto et al /  Plos ONE )

Preliminary DNA analysis indicates that both boys and girls were victims and isotopic analysis indicates that they were not all drawn from local populations but from different regions of the Chimú Empire. Furthermore, evidence for  cranial modification was discovered supporting the idea that these children had been brought to the coast from farther-flung areas of Chimú influence .

Detailing South America’s Sacrificed Children

Returning to the infants found in Ecuador wearing other children’s skulls over their own; this practice seems to be uniquely Ecuadorian and has not been found anywhere else in ancient Andean funerary practices . According to Lonely Planet , Salango, where the babies were discovered, comes alive with the Festival de la Balsa Manteña which takes place annually on October 12th, when locals sail traditional bamboo boats along the shoreline which in ancient times would have been used for trading goods as far afield as Mexico.

Salango, the location of the discovery of the skull helmets used in the infant burials celebrates many rituals such as the Festival de la Balsa Manteña. (El Diario)

Salango, the location of the discovery of the skull helmets used in the infant burials celebrates many rituals such as the Festival de la Balsa Manteña. ( El Diario )

Salango Archaeological Museum, on the northern edge of Salango, located only a block in from the beach, offers more than 245 ceramics pieces dating from 3,000 BC to 1,500 AD from settlements of the Valdivia, Machalilla, Chorrera Engoroy, Bahia, and Guangala peoples. Archaeologists have a lab for on location research and the museum also offers 11 beach cabins at a mere $15 per-person for those explorers who wish to roll their sleeves up and get involved with archaeology projects.

Top image: Infant discovered at Salango, Ecuador, with a skull helmet. Source: Twitter.

By Ashley Cowie

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