There are still a few of us around who remember riding bikes, roller-blading, skate-boarding and participating in other outdoor activities without wearing a helmet. While we may have thought this helmet thing was a recent phenomenon, it turns out there were kids wearing helmets 2000 years ago … and this discovery is baffling archeologists – not because there were no bikes or skateboards back then, but because these ‘helmets’ were made out of … brace yourselves … the skulls of other humans! Safety? Some strange religious ritual? Something else? Write down your answer and let’s see if you’re a winner.
“The human head was a potent symbol for many South American cultures. Isolated heads were often included in mortuary contexts, representing captured enemies, revered persons, and symbolic “seeds.””
According to a new study published in the journal Latin American Antiquity, the macabre helmets were discovered between 2014 and 2016 in Salango, a city on Ecuador’s central Pacific coast. The bodies of 11 individuals were buried there and unique artifacts dated them to the Guangala culture – a ceramics-making people living in the area between 100 BCE and 800 CE. Two of the bodies were identified as infants – one about 18 months old and the other about 6-9 months old at death. In an interview with Forbes.com, Sara Juengst of the University of North Carolina, one of the researchers who found the remains, said that what these children had on their heads was something they’d never seen before – the skulls of older children who were between 2 and 12 years old.
“The modified cranium of a second juvenile was placed in a helmet-like fashion around the head of the first, such that the primary individual’s face looked through and out of the cranial vault of the second.”
So, the wearer was looking out of the back of the skull-helmet – not exactly the way one would wear it for protection while playing Ecuadorian kickball. However, as explained in Live Science, it gets worse.
“The helmets were placed tightly over the infants’ heads, the archaeologists found. It’s likely that the older children’s skulls still had flesh on them when they were turned into helmets, because without flesh, the helmets likely would not have held together, the archaeologists noted.”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the wearers were most likely dead when they got their skull helmets. Unfortunately, the helmets appear to have come from older kids who were recently deceased. As with many gruesome discoveries in Central and South America, these were obviously the results of some sort of religious or burial rituals. As this is “the only known evidence of using juvenile crania as mortuary headgear, either in South America or globally,” the researchers did the best they could to come up reasons for the gruesome practice.
“(It) “may represent an attempt to ensure the protection of these ‘presocial and wild’ souls.”
Well, that’s common in many burials, especially of young children. However, Juengst doesn’t rule out the possibility that the wearers and skull donors were related and the “potentially curated ancestor skulls” were “worn in life as well as in death.” If that’s the case, it may tie into evidence that the children died shortly after a volcanic eruption – they showed evidence of malnutrition that could have been caused by a lack of food.
“(Perhaps) the treatment of the two infants was part of a larger, complex ritual response to environmental consequences of the eruption.”
Bioarchaeologist Sara Becker of the University of California Riverside, who was not part of the research, told Forbes.com that she would consider this theory.
“(It) makes me consider practices elsewhere where heads are buried in chests as if they are ‘seeds’ to help with agricultural productivity. I do wonder if it has something to do with rebirth, and if these children could have been important symbols of that.”
Needless to say, more research is needed to understand the practices of these ancient South American cultures we have so little history for and whose practices were considered ‘pagan’ by the invading Europeans.
As is so often the case, the more we find out, the less we know.