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9,000-year-old ritualized decapitation found in Brazil

Decapitated skull buried with amputated hands


A 9,000 year-old case of human decapitation has been found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in Brazil, according to a study published September 23, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by André Strauss from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany and colleagues.

An archaeological site called Lapa do Santo, located in east-central Brazil, contains evidence of human occupation dating back to ~12,000 years ago. In 2007, researchers found fragments of a buried body, Burial 26, including a cranium, jaw, the first six cervical vertebrae, and two severed hands at the site. They dated the remains back to ~9,000 years ago using accelerator mass spectrometry. The researchers found amputated hands laid over the face of the skull arranged opposite each other and observed v-shaped cut marks on the jaw and sixth cervical vertebra.

Based on strontium analysis comparing Burial 26's isotopic signature to other specimens from Lapa do Santo, the researchers suggest Burial 26 was likely a local member of the group. Additionally, the presentation of the remains, lead the authors to think that this was likely a ritualized decapitation instead of trophy-taking. If this is the case, these remains may demonstrate sophisticated mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas during this time period. The authors think this may be the oldest case of decapitation found in the New Word, leading to a re-evaluation of the previous interpretations of this practice, particularly with regards to its origins and geographic dispersion.


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Citation: Strauss A, Oliveira RE, Bernardo DV, Salazar-García DC, Talamo S, Jaouen K, et al. (2015) The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil). PLOS ONE 10(9): e0137456. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0137456

Funding: The excavation of Lapa do Santo was significantly funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) through two research grants obtained by WN (99/0670-7 and 04/01321-6). FAPESP also provided a post-doctoral fellowship to RK (01/06881-1), PhD scholarship (08/58729-8 to DVB), and a MSc scholarship (08/51747-0 to AS). The Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) WAN with a productivity grant (300818/2007-6). The Max Planck Society provided a PhD scholarship for AS. DCSG acknowledges the Generalitat Valenciana (VALi+d APOSTD/2014/123) and the European Union (FP7/ 2007-2013 - MSCA-COFUND, n°245743) through a Braudel-IFER-FMSH in collaboration with the LAMPEA lab at the Université d'Aix-Marseille. RK is currently employed in a commercial company that provided support only in the form of salaries, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are articulated in the 'author contributions' section".

Competing Interests: The authors of this manuscript have the following competing interests: Author Renato Kipnis is employed by Scientia Consultoria Científica Ltda. There are no patents, products in development or marketed products to declare. This does not alter their adherence to all the PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.

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