(Photo: Strauss et al./PLOS ONE)

Back in July of 2007, researchers excavating human burials at the Brazilian site of Lapa do Santo found something strange—two amputated hands that had been laid across the face of a skull. One hand was pointing down, the other up. There were also “v-shaped cut marks” on the jaw and vertebrae. The team, publishing in PLOS ONE, now believes that this is “the oldest case of decapitation found in the New World.”

People had lived in Lapa do Santo (now Brazil), starting about 12,000 year ago; this skull dates back about 9,000 years from the present. The people who lived in the area were likely “hunter-gathers with low mobility,” the researchers report. They also think the decapitated person was a member of the local community—which means the beheading may have been a ritual decapitation, rather than an act of war.

In their paper, the researchers detail the evidence that this person, thought to be young man, had his head and arms intentionally removed from his body.  There are hack marks on one of the wrist bones that indicate it was removed with force from the arm. And, on the skull and neck bones, the researchers write, cut marks suggest the skull was subject to both “soft tissue removal and decapitation.” (“It is possible that multiple forces were applied to the head to detach it from the neck,” they write.)

All in all the evidence points to one conclusion: this is “a clear case of decapitation.”

Archaeologists have wondered how far back and how widely people in the Americas practiced decapitation. Previous to this discovery, the oldest instance of decapitation ever found dated back to about 4,500 years ago. In South America, the record goes back ever less far: the oldest instance known is dated to 3,000 years ago. There’s evidence that different groups of people practiced decapitation in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and, in particular, Peru: before now, it was thought likely that the practice in South America began in the Andes. This find provides evidence that it went far further back and was spread far wider than previously thought. 

Every day, we highlight one newly lost or found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something unusual or amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.