Headhunting – the practice of removing the head of a corpse after killing its owner and then preserving it or at least the skull – is far more common throughout human history than one might suspect, occurring on every continent (except Antarctica, as far as we know) and still practiced in a few cultures in modern times. While the usual reason was to demonstrate conquest and promote beliefs that controlling the head was a way to control and enslave an enemy in the afterlife, a new discovery of a large cache of mummified trophy heads in Peru has turned that theory on its – you guessed it – head.
The story of these mysterious heads begins in the Vitor Valley of Southern Peru, an area whose human history predates writing, so artifacts and remains are crucial to solving the history of the La Ramada culture who it is believed were the head hunters … and possibly more. Recent excavations in the area, led by Peruvian bioarchaeologist and University of Chicago researcher Dr. María Cecilia Lozada, uncovered 27 burial pits dating back to about 550 CE. The 13-foot-deep (4 meters) pits contained the remains of around 60 people, including women and babies, and ceremonial artifacts and textiles. However, the most unusual discovery in the pits were six trophy heads.
Heads and skulls are a big deal in Peru — it’s the go-to place for the mysterious or sadistic, depending on what you believe their cause to be, elongated skulls – and in many Mesoamerican civilizations where tzompantli – the wooden racks filled with sometimes thousands of skulls – continue to be found. These skulls are generally believed to be from victims of human sacrifice or war prisoners. On the other hand, trophy skulls are usually the heads of enemies killed in battle and brought back to leaders as evidence and as warnings (often placed on stakes) to other potential enemies and to citizens thinking about insurrection. There are stories and rumors of trophy head collecting in virtually every major war and on both sides – including World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Needless to say, it’s also a tactic of terrorists.
The trophy skulls of the Vitor Valley, naturally mummified by the dry air, are something different, according to Lozada’s presentation at this year’s Society for American Archaeology annual meeting and in a recent interview with Live Science.
“The heads may not belong to enemies, but maybe to combatants of the same group.”
That’s right … these ‘trophy’ heads belonged to their own people or fellow soldiers. Why would the La Ramada people do such a thing? Lozada thinks they may have wanted to bring the bodies of fallen soldiers back to their homeland for burial, but could not so they brought just their heads. Gruesome, yes, but it was 550 CE.
Lozada plans to confirm her theory with DNA and isotopic analysis of the naturally-mummified heads that will identify where the owners of the heads, along with the other skeletons and mummies in the burial pits, lived.
How many does she need to prove her theory? In archeology as in life, two heads are always better than one.