Anthropology boffins solve 9,000-year-old headless body cold case

Oldest instance of human decapitation found – but a bit late to catch the killers


The oldest case of human decapitation has been uncovered by scientists in Brazil – some 9,000 years after the ritual was originally performed.

The body was found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in 2007. Amputated hands were found laid over the face of the skull, with v-shaped cut marks on the jaw and sixth cervical vertebra.

An ultra-filtered Accelerator Mass Spectrometer – which is a highly sensitive method of counting atoms – determined the age of the body.

The boffins also used Strontium Isotope Analysis to compare the burial's isotopic signature to other specimens from the region. The site contains evidence of human occupation dating back to 12,000 years ago.

They concluded that the body was a member of the group, and that the decapitation was likely to be a ritualised decapitation, instead of trophy-taking.

"In the apparent absence of wealth goods or elaborated architecture, Lapa do Santo’s inhabitants seemed to use the human body to express their cosmological principles regarding death," said the paper.

The authors think this may be the oldest case of decapitation found in the New World, leading to a re-evaluation of the previous interpretations of this practice, particularly with regards to its origins and geographic dispersion.

The study was published on 23 September, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, by André Strauss from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. ®

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