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One of six trophy heads found in the 27 funerary pits.

Recently Unearthed Head Collectors in Ancient Peru Might Not Be So Unique

Head-hunting, as a way of establishing power and veneration of the head as the throne of the soul and the body’s spiritual engine, began in Europe as far back as Mesolithic times, approximately 13,000 years ago. This ancient European heritage was much later adopted by Celtic cultures to whom worship of the head became a central element of their ideology, expressed in their arts, crafts and mythologies.

But as the Celtic empire of Europe was collapsing under the weight of the Catholic church in the 6th century, on the other side of the world the La Ramada culture of Vitor Valley in southern Peru were apparently also gathering the heads of enemies, and possibly their own slain warriors.

One of 27 funerary pits found in the Vitor Valley in Peru. Image: Maria Cecilia Lozada

One of 27 funerary pits found in the Vitor Valley in Peru. Image: Maria Cecilia Lozada

1500-year-old Peruvian head-collectors

Buried in 27 pits, dug 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) down, archaeologists unearthed “nearly 1,500-year-old remains of at least 60 people” including “six trophy heads,” some of which were preserved due to the arid climate, which naturally mummified some of the remains. Each pit contained several bodies, with the babies buried alongside the bodies of adult women.

Maria Cecilia Lozada, a research associate and lecturer of anthropology at the University of Chicago, led the excavation team who presented their findings in April at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Washington DC. Lozada told reporters at Live Science "We see a lot of beautiful and feathered textiles buried with these people.”

Some beautiful textiles were buried with the people in the funerary pits, preserved due to Peru’s dry climate. Image: Maria Cecilia Lozada

Some beautiful textiles were buried with the people in the funerary pits, preserved due to Peru’s dry climate. Image: Maria Cecilia Lozada

Surprisingly, inside the burial pits, archaeologists also found trophy heads which they later discovered had been decapitated from their bodies sometime after death. Archaeologists in Peru are split on ‘who’ such heads might once have belonged to: some specialists maintaining they came from enemies killed in battle, but Lozada believes these particular heads are from people “who lived in the same community and were killed in an outside battle.”

She added, “The heads may not belong to enemies, but maybe to combatants of the same group,” arguing that “perhaps, comrades brought the heads back from the battlefield so they could be buried with people from their own community,” but admits “it's just one theory.”

Testing the theories

To settle this argument, Lozada and her team plan to analyze DNA and certain isotopes (atoms of an element with different numbers of neutrons) from the trophy heads, mummies and skeletons to reveal clues as to where the people grew up, finally determining whether the trophy heads are related to the mummies and skeletons, or not. The results of this research project will be published in the future in a scientific journal.

Well-preserved mummies in the Cemetery of Chauchilla, 30 km away from Nazca. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Well-preserved mummies in the Cemetery of Chauchilla, 30 km away from Nazca. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Peruvian head-hunters

While the scientists take care of the isotopes, the rest of us might be well served to learn a little about the practices of contemporary ancient Peruvian cultures regarding trophy heads. The Nazca culture of Peru, most well-known for their enigmatic  Nazca Lines , hundreds of stylized images and alignments in the Peruvian coastal plain, is known to have engaged in headhunting, evident in the so-called ‘trophy heads’ featured in the iconography of Nazca pottery, depicting decapitated heads impaled on poles, hung from banners, being carried by warriors, and displayed amidst groups of people.

At least 100 ritually severed heads have been discovered since the early 20th century, and similarly to the 6 trophy heads discussed in this article, analyses of these Nazca heads suggested they were removed from the body, by being sliced with a sharp obsidian knife before the base of the skull was broken away.

Trophy heads with ropes and holes, and a deformed/manipulated skull unearthed near Nazca. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trophy heads with ropes and holes, and a deformed/manipulated skull unearthed near Nazca. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Another feature similar to both Peruvian cultures is that small holes have been punched into the center of the foreheads for threading ropes for hanging the heads or wearing them. A recent Ancient Origins article discussing trophy heads in ancient Peru concluded that “The Nazca’s use of decapitated heads has been compared to that of the Jivaro Indians of eastern Peru and Ecuador, most famous perhaps for shrinking the decapitated heads of their victims.”

In both Nazca and Jivaro cultures, heads were prized sacred objects which have been found in a variety of ritualistic environments before being ceremonially entombed. Furthermore, the Nazca heads were all buried adjacent to cemeteries, suggesting they had ritualistic functions relating to the dead and the passage of the soul in the afterlife.

It would seem that right across ancient Peru and Europe, right up to medieval times, people were similarly minded when it came to the cranial caps function in this life and the next!

Top image: One of six trophy heads found in the 27 funerary pits. Source: Maria Cecilia Lozada

By Ashley Cowie

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