Headless skeleton expands understanding of ancient Andean rituals

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
May 31, 2007

Images of disembodied heads are widespread in the art of Nasca, a culture based on the southern coast of Peru from AD 1 to AD 750. But despite this evidence and large numbers of trophy heads in the region’s archaeological record, only eight headless bodies have been recovered with evidence of decapitation, explains Christina A. Conlee of Texas State University-San Marcos.

Conlee’s analysis of a newly excavated headless body from the site of La Tiza provides important new data on decapitation and its relationship to ancient ideas of death and regeneration.

As Conlee outlines in the June issue of Current Anthropology, the third vertebrae of the La Tiza skeleton has dark cut marks, rounded edges, and no evidence of flaking or breakage, indicating decapitation occurred at or very soon after the time of death. A ceramic jar decorated with an image of a head was placed next to the body. The head has a tree with eyes growing out of it, the branches encircling the vessel.

“Ritual battles often take place just before plowing for potato planting, and trees and unripened fruit figure in these rituals, in which the shedding of blood is necessary to nourish the earth to produce a good harvest,” Conlee writes. “The presence of scalp cuts on Nasca trophy heads suggests the letting of blood was an important part of the ritual that resulted in decapitation."

Conlee also points to damage on the jar that indicates it had already been handled and used before being included in the tomb. This was only the third head jar found with a headless skeleton. Most are found at domestic sites, and prior research has concluded that they were probably used to drink from, most likely in connection with fertility rituals. “If the head jar was used to drink from during fertility rituals, then its inclusion in the burial further strengthens the relationship between decapitation and rebirth,” Conlee explains.

Notably, there is also no evidence of habitation in the La Tiza region during the Middle Nasca period (AD 450-550), to which the head jar dates.  All of the Nasca domestic sites in the area date to the Early Nasca, indicating that the La Tiza skeleton may have been deliberately buried in an abandoned settlement that was associated with the ancestors.

“Human sacrifice and decapitation were part of powerful rituals that would have allayed fears by invoking the ancestors to ensure fertility and the  continuation of Nasca society,” Conlee writes. “The decapitation of the La Tiza individual appears to have been part of a ritual associated with ensuring agricultural fertility and the continuation of life and rebirth of the community.”

Sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. Communicating across the subfields, the journal features papers in a wide variety of areas, including social, cultural, and physical anthropology as well as ethnology and ethnohistory, archaeology and prehistory, folklore, and linguistics. For more information, please see www.journals.uchicago.edu/CA

Christina A. Conlee, “Decapitation and Rebirth: A Headless Burial from Nasca, Peru.” Current Anthropology 48:3.

For more information, contact Suzanne Wu at (773) 834-0386 or via email at swu@press.uchicago.edu.