Decapitated Man Found in Peru Tomb With Ceramic "Replacement" Head

June 6, 2007

A headless skeleton found in a Peruvian tomb is adding new wrinkles to the debate over human sacrifice in the ancient Andes.

The decapitated body was found in the Nasca region, named for the ancient civilization that thrived in southern Peru from A.D. 1 to 750.

Known for producing "Nasca lines" in the earth that depict giant figures, the culture is also noted among archaeologists for practicing human sacrifice and displaying modified human heads called trophy heads.

But experts have been divided over whether the heads were taken from enemies in war or from locals offered up for ritual sacrifice.

In 2004 Christina Conlee, an archaeologist at Texas State University, found a rare headless skeleton in a tomb sitting cross-legged with a ceramic "head jar" placed to the left of the body (see enlarged photo).

The age and condition of both the body and the jar, which is painted with two inverted human faces, suggests that the victim was killed in a rite of ancestral worship, Conlee said.

"This research is important because it provides new information on human sacrifice in the ancient Andes and in particular on decapitation and trophy heads," she said.

The skeleton appears to belong to a 20- to 25-year-old male and bears gruesome evidence of the decapitation, including cut marks indicating that the bone was fresh when damaged, she added.

"Someone spent quite a bit of effort cutting off the head," mostly likely with a sharp obsidian knife, Conlee noted.

Ritual or War?

The burial site, called La Tiza, contains only the third known Nasca head jar found with a decapitated body.

Head jars have been found at other Nasca sites and are often associated with high-status burials, though scientists know little about their function.

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