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The Rituals of Our Ancestors

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The remains of a decapitation 9,000 years ago reveal the complexity of ancient practices
One of the greatest mysteries of human evolution is about our ancestors as hunter-gatherers. We know that about 70,000 years ago, what archaeologists call ‘the Cognitive Revolution’ occurred. Homo Sapiens began to develop a remarkable form of language and formed a society. They began moving across large parts of the world, developed boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, needles, and even earlyforms of art, all of which eventually led us to become the planet’s dominant species. We know all this, but little else is known about our ancestors lives back then. How did they think and behave? Did they, for instance, have religions and rituals?

In 2007, archaeologists, while excavating a site in eastern Brazil, discovered what appeared to be a head buried under a rock. Apart from the disembodied skull and hands, which were placed over the face in a deliberate pose, the rest of the skeleton was never found.

Now scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany who had been studying the skull have published their findings in the journal Plos One. They say these are the remains of a man’s beheading estimated to have occurred between 9,127 and 9,438 years ago. So far, hunter-gatherers were believed to have lived simple lives with simple tools. According to the researchers, however, the man’s decapitation was part of a burial ritual. This hints at a belief system of some complexity.

The skull had mostly been pulled off, with only little cutting involved. They rule out the possibility of the head being some form of trophy. Furthermore, the examination of the remains suggests that the individual was a local rather than an outsider or a rival, leading to the belief that the death was indeed part of some kind of symbolic ritual. The positioning of the hands, according to the researchers, also seems to have some kind of meaning—right hand on the left side of the face, left on the right, pointing in opposite directions.

One of the researchers, André Strauss, claims in a press release, ‘This ritualized decapitation attests to the early sophistication of mortuary rituals among hunter-gatherers in the Americas.’