Recently Unearthed Head Collectors in Ancient Peru Might Not Be So Unique

Recently Unearthed Head Collectors in Ancient Peru Might Not Be So Unique


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Head-hunting, as a way of establishing power and veneration of the head as the throne of the soul and the body’s spiritual engine, began in Europe as far back as Mesolithic times, approximately 13,000 years ago. This ancient European heritage was much later adopted by Celtic cultures to whom worship of the head became a central element of their ideology, expressed in their arts, crafts and mythologies.

But as the Celtic empire of Europe was collapsing under the weight of the Catholic church in the 6th century, on the other side of the world the La Ramada culture of Vitor Valley in southern Peru were apparently also gathering the heads of enemies, and possibly their own slain warriors.

One of 27 funerary pits found in the Vitor Valley in Peru. Image: Maria Cecilia Lozada

1500-year-old Peruvian head-collectors

Buried in 27 pits, dug 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) down, archaeologists unearthed “nearly 1,500-year-old remains of at least 60 people” including “six trophy heads,” some of which were preserved due to the arid climate, which naturally mummified some of the remains. Each pit contained several bodies, with the babies buried alongside the bodies of adult women.

Maria Cecilia Lozada, a research associate and lecturer of anthropology at the University of Chicago, led the excavation team who presented their findings in April at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Washington DC. Lozada told reporters at Live Science "We see a lot of beautiful and feathered textiles buried with these people.”

  • Hundreds of Ancient Mummies Discovered at Ceremonial Site in Peru
  • Mummy hair reveals ancient Peruvians enjoyed seafood and beer
  • Scientists Set to Unravel Secrets of Oldest Peruvian Mummies Ever Found

Some beautiful textiles were buried with the people in the funerary pits, preserved due to Peru’s dry climate. Image: Maria Cecilia Lozada

Surprisingly, inside the burial pits, archaeologists also found trophy heads which they later discovered had been decapitated from their bodies sometime after death. Archaeologists in Peru are split on ‘who’ such heads might once have belonged to: some specialists maintaining they came from enemies killed in battle, but Lozada believes these particular heads are from people “who lived in the same community and were killed in an outside battle.”

She added, “The heads may not belong to enemies, but maybe to combatants of the same group,” arguing that “perhaps, comrades brought the heads back from the battlefield so they could be buried with people from their own community,” but admits “it's just one theory.”

Testing the theories

To settle this argument, Lozada and her team plan to analyze DNA and certain isotopes (atoms of an element with different numbers of neutrons) from the trophy heads, mummies and skeletons to reveal clues as to where the people grew up, finally determining whether the trophy heads are related to the mummies and skeletons, or not. The results of this research project will be published in the future in a scientific journal.

  • Peruvian Mummy Taken to Children’s Hospital for Revealing X-rays
  • Peruvian Necropolis Destroyed by Looters and Tourists is Preserved by Salvage Archaeology
  • Fire Mummies - The Smoked Human Remains of the Kabayan Caves

Well-preserved mummies in the Cemetery of Chauchilla, 30 km away from Nazca. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Peruvian head-hunters

While the scientists take care of the isotopes, the rest of us might be well served to learn a little about the practices of contemporary ancient Peruvian cultures regarding trophy heads. The Nazca culture of Peru, most well-known for their enigmatic Nazca Lines , hundreds of stylized images and alignments in the Peruvian coastal plain, is known to have engaged in headhunting, evident in the so-called ‘trophy heads’ featured in the iconography of Nazca pottery, depicting decapitated heads impaled on poles, hung from banners, being carried by warriors, and displayed amidst groups of people.

At least 100 ritually severed heads have been discovered since the early 20th century, and similarly to the 6 trophy heads discussed in this article, analyses of these Nazca heads suggested they were removed from the body, by being sliced with a sharp obsidian knife before the base of the skull was broken away.

Trophy heads with ropes and holes, and a deformed/manipulated skull unearthed near Nazca. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Another feature similar to both Peruvian cultures is that small holes have been punched into the center of the foreheads for threading ropes for hanging the heads or wearing them. A recent Ancient Origins article discussing trophy heads in ancient Peru concluded that “The Nazca’s use of decapitated heads has been compared to that of the Jivaro Indians of eastern Peru and Ecuador, most famous perhaps for shrinking the decapitated heads of their victims.”

In both Nazca and Jivaro cultures, heads were prized sacred objects which have been found in a variety of ritualistic environments before being ceremonially entombed. Furthermore, the Nazca heads were all buried adjacent to cemeteries, suggesting they had ritualistic functions relating to the dead and the passage of the soul in the afterlife.

It would seem that right across ancient Peru and Europe, right up to medieval times, people were similarly minded when it came to the cranial caps function in this life and the next!


6 Bizarre Ancient Finds That Were Recently Discovered

The world today is strange as it is. However, we continue to learn amazing new things about the past. Some ancient finds have proven that there are several mysteries waiting to be discovered.

We have already learned about our history. However, these recent ancient discoveries have once again confirmed that there’s still a lot we need to know. Take a look at these amazing finds that recently left scientists in confusion.

#1. The Mud Mummy

The Egyptians were determined to preserve the mortal body in preparation for the afterlife. To do so, they came up with various methods of mummifying their dead. Scientists have studied most of these methods but they still found an unexpected ingredient used for one woman’s remains.

Researchers from an Australian university discovered that one of their mummies had been packed in mud. They found that the mummy had been damaged and someone decided to fix her by using mud instead of resin. It is believed that mud was chosen because it is cheaper than resin.

#2. The Mummy With The Golden Tongue

Finding a mummy in Egypt is not unusual. However, one particular mummy that was dug up in early 2021 is truly unique. The 2,000-year-old corpse is the only one found with a golden tongue.

It is unclear why the corpse was buried with a tongue made of gold. It is believed that he had a speech impediment when he was alive and would need a tongue to speak to the gods.

#3. The Human Bone Arrowheads

The ancient inhabitants of Doggerland, a small strip of land that once connected Britain to mainland Europe, had some interesting hobbies. In addition to using animal bones for arrowheads, they also used human bones to create these weapons.

Researchers were baffled by the discovery considering that human bones are not as durable as other materials available around 10,000 years ago. It is believed that the arrowheads were used for symbolic means.

#4. The New Mayan Drug

The Mayans used tobacco but it’s not the only plant they smoked. Washington State University discovered that the Mayans kept marigold in ceramic pots. What’s unusual is that these containers were used to hold drugs.

The marigold was stuffed in the containers along with two types of tobacco. Although it won’t get you high, the marigold may have enhanced the flavor of tobacco when smoked.

#5. The Mummy Filled with Grasshoppers

Ivory might be tough but a prehistoric community living in Siberia found a way to make art with mammoth tusks. But instead of carving into the tusks, they managed to soften the ivory and create small sculptures.

It is unknown how they were able to soften the ivory into a pliable state that allowed them to work with the material. However, it was confirmed that ivory can be softened like clay and harden afterwards.


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In light of this, the llamas might seem an afterthought. But as a source of food, transportation, and fiber for textiles, these animals represented a valuable commodity in pre-Hispanic Peru. Such a culling would have amounted to significant economic loss for the ancient Chimú, Verano says.

Bolstering the case for sacrifice, close examination of the remains revealed that the children and llamas were probably killed by expert hands. Many of the bodies showed the same patterns of damage to the breast bones and ribs, hinting that their chests had been sliced open and pulled apart so their hearts could be removed, perhaps for a separate rite.

No written records from Chimú society survive, so the significance of the heart, like much else, remains an open question. But Verano has theories. “The heart beats—it’s the thing we can feel in our chests,” he says. “That’s a very dramatic thing, and many ancient societies considered it an important organ. It may have been something seen as related to life and strength.”

The victims’ bodies were then placed in what seem to be purposeful arrays, with most of the children interred facing the sea to the northwest and the llamas looking to the Andes in the east. Whatever symbolism underlies this sacrificial choreography isn’t entirely clear, but the consistency of the arrangement indicates it had some significance.

“This is a phenomenal contribution to our understanding of ritual practices in the Andes,” Tung says. “These were not isolated one-offs. This was a very premeditated, sanctified, ritually codified practice.”

The three adults—two women and a man—pose more of a puzzle, however. While their chests weren’t opened, all three were buried close to the children and llamas, and appear to have been part of the ritual. Prieto thinks that the women might have been caretakers for the children during the extended congregation that likely preceded such a large, coordinated ritual. The man, on the other hand, might have been the executioner himself.

Most of the victims of the sacrifice appear to have had their hearts removed in the process. Their bodies were then buried in specific arrangements that put the remains of human and llama side by side. Image Credit: John Verano, Tulane University

Also unveiled during the excavation was a series of footprints preserved in a layer of dried mud. The imprints paint a grim portrait of barefooted children, sandaled adults, and leashed llamas, all hailing from different locales, but converging on a single sacrificial site—a macabre, unifying march to the death.

In this soil might also lie some of the only clues about the motivations behind this grisly assembly. Under normal conditions, the landscape of Las Llamas featured a series of sandy dunes. But at the time of the sacrifice, the area had recently been blanketed by a thick, impressionable layer of heavy mud, clay, and gravel, possibly due to a recent climate event related to El Niño.

Uncharacteristically warm ocean waters might have taken their toll on marine food sources, while the torrential downpour and flooding could have ravaged the Chimú peoples’ extensive infrastructure of agricultural canals. In light of such devastation, the sacrifice might have been a desperate attempt to quell the onslaught.

It’s hard to know for sure if natural disaster was truly enough to prompt such a strong reaction, Verano says, but it wouldn’t be the first time two such events were linked. For leaders who ruled under the guise of near-omnipotence, inclement weather could give the impression that they’d lost their edge, he explains.

Others, however, have noted that the sacrifice occurred somewhat close to the cataclysmic conquest of the Chimú by the Inca around 1470 CE. Verano has “a hard time making a logical sense out of killing your children to stop a military conquest,” but it’s still possible the urgency of both situations built off each other.

Either way, the sacrifice might have served several purposes—an effort to appease the gods, perhaps, or a timely display of power. “This tells us about the authority of the Chimú state,” Tung says. “A ritual like this sends a strong message. It’s a way to subjugate and create social control [amongst your own people] without even touching the flesh of others.”

The sacrifice may have been the Chimús' desperate attempt to appease the gods in the wake of recent rains and flooding. Image Credit: John Verano, Tulane University

Going forward, this excavation might not be unique: The researchers are already hard at work at another site nearby, where the numbers are so far looking similarly staggering. But the final chapter on Las Llamas itself has yet to be written. The researchers are still conducting additional testing on these remains, including more in-depth DNA analysis that might help determine if any of the victims were related to each other.

In the meantime, the researchers stress that they don’t want these findings to be taken the wrong way. Dark though this display was, there was probably an element of honor in participating in the sacrifice, Juengst says. “It may be something that’s hard for us to conceive of, but the belief may have been that this would help society in some way,” she says. “It wasn’t necessarily malevolent or violent. And unless we’re within that cultural context, it’s hard to judge.”

And while child sacrifice is a taboo topic in the modern world, it’s important not to deny the reality of a culture’s past, says Vera Tiesler, a bioarchaeologist at the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States who was not involved in the study. “We shouldn’t deny these societies their real history,” she says. “We need to comprehend it in an objective way—interpret the evidence, understand it, and go as deeply as we can.”

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7 Multicomponent Virus

Normal viruses have all their genes in one viral particle. This viral ball attaches to a cell, opens, and injects its genetic material inside. The host cell begins replicating the virus. Once enough copies are made, they kill the cell, break free, and infect more.

The Guaico Culex virus is different. To become infected, a cell needs to be exposed to four varieties of packages. A fifth appears optional.

Named after the region in Trinidad it originated, Guaico Culex was discovered during a comprehensive study by the US Army Medical Team to isolate mosquito-borne viruses around the globe. While researchers do not believe Guaico Culex virus can infect mammals, they recently discovered a closely related variety in Uganda&rsquos red colobus monkeys.


Continuing their search for artifacts a year later, the team dug beneath the priestess, uncovering a basement tomb they believe was built by an ancient water cult and meant to flood.

"This is a very valuable finding," said Carlos Wester La Torre, head of the excavation and director of the Brüning National Archaeological Museum in the Lambayeque region—a region named after the little-known culture that built the stacked tomb. "The amount of information of this funerary complex is very important, because it changes [what we know of] the political and religious structures of the Andean region."

The nearly 800-year-old basement burial sheds light on complex Lambayeque social structures and on the worship of water in the culture.

Four sets of waterlogged human remains were found in the flooded tomb, one adorned with pearl, turquoise, and shell beads—indicators of wealth or status. The other three corpses likely were intended to accompany the body into the next world.

The faces of both elite individuals, in the lower and upper tombs, were covered with copper sheets, and wore earspools bearing similar, wavelike designs.

Izumi Shimada, a Lambayeque expert at Southern Illinois University who was not part of the excavation team.


6 of The Most Fascinating Artifacts Found on 'America Unearthed'

For over 4 seasons, Scott Wolter has uncovered and discovered some of the world's most fascinating artifacts.

AU-Show-TAUH404-TAUH-404H-E2572

Host Scott Wolter examines inscriptions depicted on the walls of a mysterious cave found in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. As seen on Travel Channel's America Unearthed.

In America Unearthed, forensic geologist Scott Wolter investigates some of the most controversial and shocking secrets hidden within American history. He uses his skills to track down the stories behind uncovered relics and artifacts. Whether he’s discovering new theories about our ancestors, or unsettling cover-ups that have misled what we believe to be true for years, Wolter refuses to back down.

Throughout the previous seasons, Wolter has come across some truly captivating and shocking objects. Here are some of the most fascinating artifacts on America Unearthed so far…

THE DARE STONES

In Roanoke: The Lost Colony, Scott Wolter investigated the disappearance of the Roanoke colony. The Roanoke colony was the first attempt by the British at establishing a permanent settlement in North America. After a harsh beginning, the colony’s governor, John White, returned to England to ask for more supplies. When he returned, all 116 residents of Roanoke had vanished.

In 1937, a series of mysterious stones were found in the South. These stones had inscriptions carved into them describing the story of what happened to the lost colony. The stones tell of the settlement facing disease, starvation, and attacks from native tribes, forcing the settlers to flee. Making the stones even more important is that they are signed by Eleanor White Dare, the daughter of John White.

The Stones were believed to be a fraud for decades, created by someone desperate for money during the Great Depression. However, in the episode, Wolter used his forensic geology skills to determine that the engravings had weathering dating back long before the 1930’s. Could this change everything we thought we knew about the lost Roanoke colony?

WINDOVER BOG BODIES

AU-Show-961041478

Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Depiction of skull. Not the actual skull found.

Photo by: Roberto Machado Noa

Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Depiction of skull. Not the actual skull found.

The Windover Bog People episode examined an ancient burial site in eastern Florida. When construction began on a new subdivision in 1982, one of the workers stumbled upon a startling find…a human skull. The construction was ceased, and archeologists were sent to investigate. The findings were shocking. Over 100 bodies were buried underwater in the shallow swamp, tightly wrapped in fabric. They were placed on their sides, all facing west. Brain matter was still preserved inside their skulls, and gut contents, along with numerous artifacts were found with the bodies. The large amount of evidence allowed an extensive investigation to conclude that these people were some of the first ever in North America, predating that of Native Americans.

When Wolter received a tip that these bodies might actually be of European ancestry, he traveled to Florida to find out for himself. He also visited Smithsonian archeologist Dr. Dennis Sandford who has a collection of European tools and carvings that were found in the American South from an ancient people known as the Solutrean. The two concluded that no matter what the heritage of the Windover bodies are, history needs to reexamine if our oldest ancestors in the New World might actually be from Europe.

PENNSYLVANIA RUNE STONE HOAX

At the start of the two-part episode Clues to the Holy Bloodline, Wolter received a tip about a recently discovered carving on a boulder in rural Pennsylvania. What intrigued him the most was the presence of a symbol known as the Hooked X, a symbol used by the Knights Templar that Wolter has been investigating for years.

Immediately upon examining the supposed rune stone, Wolter noticed many problems – The symbols aren’t carved properly, the letters are incomprehensible, and the entire “relic” had been recently chiseled and was covered in mud as an attempt to make it look old.

The most intriguing part of the episode is watching Wolter notice every inconsistency with the stone. It’s shocking to see someone with so much skill and precision, and gives credence to the field of forensic geology. The scam also proves that people are threatened by new ideas changing history, and will do anything to lead investigators astray…


World's oldest needle found in Siberian cave that stitches together human history

'Sensational' discovery in Denisova Cave is at least 50,000 years old BUT it wasn't made by Homo sapiens.

The needle is seen as providing proof that the long-gone Denisovans - named after the cave - were more sophisticated than previously believed. Picture: Vesti

The 7 centimetre (2 3/4 inch) needle was made and used by our long extinct Denisovan ancestors, a recently-discovered hominin species or subspecies.

Scientists found the sewing implement - complete with a hole for thread - during the annual summer archeological dig at an Altai Mountains cave widely believed to hold the secrets of man's origins. It appears to be still useable after 50,000 years.

Professor Mikhail Shunkov, head of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, said: 'It is the most unique find of this season, which can even be called sensational.

It appears to be still useable after 50,000 years. Picture: Vesti

'It is a needle made of bone. As of today it is the most ancient needle in the word. It is about 50,000 years old.'

The needle is seen as providing proof that the long-gone Denisovans - named after the cave - were more sophisticated than previously believed. It predates by some 10,000 years an intricate modern-looking piece of polished jewellery made of chlorite by the Denisovans.

It was made of the bone of a large and so far unidentified bird.

The 7 centimetre (2 3/4 inch) needle was made and used by our long extinct Denisovan ancestors, a recently-discovered hominin species or subspecies. Pictures: Russia 24, Vesti

Dr Maksim Kozlikin, head of the excavations at Denisova cave, said: 'The length of this needle is 7 centimetres, 6 millimetres. It is the longest needle found in Denisova cave. We have found needles before, but in 'younger' (archeological) layers.'

The needle rewrites history since the previous oldest such object dates to some 40,000 years ago, according to Russian scientists. It is assumed that the newly-found needle was made by Denisovans, as it was found in the same layer where Denisovan remains were previously found.

Dr Maksim Kozlikin, head of the excavations at Denisova cave: 'It is the longest needle found in Denisova cave.' Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

The cave has provided a succession of revelations about ancient man. It was here in 2008 that Siberian scientists discovered a finger bone fragment of 'X woman', a juvenile female believed to have lived around 41,000 years ago.

Analysis showed she was genetically distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans. In 2010 analysis on an upper molar from a young adult, found in the cave ten years previously, showed the tooth was also from a Denisovan.

The cave lies in the Altai Mountains around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the city of Barnaul. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

Layers of the cave's flooring show that it has been occupied by humans for 282,000 years. Scientists believe that Denisovan remains date back up to 170,000 years ago .

The bracelet was discovered in 2008 , and scientists have since suggested it showed the Denisovans to be more technologically advanced than Home sapiens or Neanderthals.

Scientists found that a hole had been drilled in part of the bracelet with such precision that it could only have been done with a high-rotation drill similar to those used today.

Professor Mikhail Shunkov, head of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, said: 'It is the most unique find of this season, which can even be called sensational.' Picture: IAET SB RAS

It was also carefully polished and grinded, with a heavy pendant added in the centre, probably hanging from a short leather strap. The cave has also provides evidence of cross-breeding between modern Homo sapiens with both Neanderthals and Denisovans .

Additionally, it has provided proof that early man surged out of Africa some 35,000 years earlier than was assumed by experts.

'It is the first genetic evidence of modern humans outside Africa,' said Sergi Castellano, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, earlier this year.

The bracelet was carefully polished and grinded, with a heavy pendant added in the centre, probably hanging from a short leather strap. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya, Anastasia Abdulmanova

The cave lies in the Altai Mountains around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the city of Barnaul. Prof Shunkov said: 'We can confidently say that Altai was one of the cultural centres. the modern human was formed.'

Scientist Svante Paabo, from the Max Planck Institute, in Leipzig, Germany, has said: 'The one place where we are sure all three human forms have lived at one time or another is here in Denisova Cave.'

The Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography is part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Ancient Cranial Surgery

Some 900 years ago, a Peruvian healer used a hand drill to make dozens of small holes in a patient's skull.

New bone growth at the trepanation site on the side of the head indicates a successful procedure. However, the holes drilled at the top of the skull were as the individual was dying or shortly after he died.

A cutting method was employed for this incomplete trepanation. The patient died before the bone plug could be removed successfully.

Several trepanation holes were drilled over an area of mottled, inflamed bone. The surgery may have been done to alleviate the pain caused by serious infection.

Ancient practitioners used various tools to create trepanations of distinct sizes and shapes.

Cranial surgery is tricky business, even under 21st-century conditions (think aseptic environment, specialized surgical instruments and copious amounts of pain medication both during and afterward).

However, evidence shows that healers in Peru practiced trepanation — a surgical procedure that involves removing a section of the cranial vault using a hand drill or a scraping tool — more than 1,000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments, from head injuries to heartsickness. And they did so without the benefit of the aforementioned medical advances.

Excavating burial caves in the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas in Peru, UC Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and her research team unearthed the remains of 32 individuals that date back to the Late Intermediate Period (ca. AD 1000-1250). Among them, 45 separate trepanation procedures were in evidence. Kurin’s findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“When you get a knock on the head that causes your brain to swell dangerously, or you have some kind of neurological, spiritual or psychosomatic illness, drilling a hole in the head becomes a reasonable thing to do,” said Kurin, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCSB and a specialist in forensic anthropology.

According to Kurin, trepanations first appeared in the south-central Andean highlands during the Early Intermediate Period (ca. AD 200-600), although the technique was not universally practiced. Still, it was considered a viable medical procedure until the Spanish put the kibosh on the practice in the early 16th century.

But Kurin wanted to know how trepanation came to exist in the first place. And she looked to a failed empire to find some answers.

“For about 400 years, from 600 to 1000 AD, the area where I work — the Andahuaylas — was living as a prosperous province within an enigmatic empire known as the Wari,” she said. “For reasons still unknown, the empire suddenly collapsed.” And the collapse of civilization, she noted, brings a lot of problems.

“But it is precisely during times of collapse that we see people’s resilience and moxie coming to the fore,” Kurin continued. “In the same way that new types of bullet wounds from the Civil War resulted in the development of better glass eyes, the same way IED’s are propelling research in prosthetics in the military today, so, too, did these people in Peru employ trepanation to cope with new challenges like violence, disease and depravation 1,000 years ago.”

Kurin’s research shows various cutting practices and techniques being employed by practitioners around the same time. Some used scraping, others used cutting and still others made use of a hand drill. “It looks like they were trying different techniques, the same way we might try new medical procedures today,” she said. “They’re experimenting with different ways of cutting into the skull.”

Sometimes they were successful and the patient recovered, and sometimes things didn’t go so well. “We can tell a trepanation is healed because we see these finger-like projections of bone that are growing,” Kurin explained. “We have several cases where someone suffered a head fracture and were treated with the surgery in many cases, both the original wound and the trepanation healed.” It could take several years for the bone to regrow, and in a subset of those, a trepanation hole in the patient’s head might remain for the rest of his life, thereby conferring upon him a new “survivor” identity.

When a patient didn’t survive, his skull (almost never hers, as the practice of trepanation on women and children was forbidden in this region) might have been donated to science, so to speak, and used for education purposes. “The idea with this surgery is to go all the way through the bone, but not touch the brain,” said Kurin. “That takes incredible skill and practice.

“As bioarchaeologists, we can tell that they’re experimenting on recently dead bodies because we can measure the location and depths of the holes they’re drilling,” she continued. “In one example, each hole is drilled a little deeper than the last. So you can imagine a guy in his prehistoric Peruvian medical school practicing with his hand drill to know how many times he needs to turn it to nimbly and accurately penetrate the thickness of a skull.”

Some might consider drilling a hole in someone’s head a form of torture, but Kurin doesn’t perceive it as such. “We can see where the trepanations are. We can see that they’re shaving the hair. We see the black smudge of an herbal remedy they put over the wound,” she noted. “To me, those are signs that the intention was to save the life of the sick or injured individual.”

The remains Kurin excavated from the caves in Andahuaylas comprise perhaps the largest well-contextualized collection in the world. Most of the trepanned crania already studied reside in museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum of Natural History or the Hearst Museum of Anthropology. “Most were collected by archaeologists a century ago and so we don’t have good contextual information,” she said.

But thanks to Kurin’s careful archaeological excavation of intact tombs and methodical analysis of the human skeletons and mummies buried therein, she knows exactly where, when and how the remains she found were buried, as well as who and what was buried with them. She used radiocarbon dating and insect casings to determine how long the bodies were left out before they skeletonized or were mummified, and multi-isotopic testing to reconstruct what they ate and where they were born. “That gives us a lot more information,” she said.

“These ancient people can’t speak to us directly, but they do give us information that allows us to reconstruct some aspect of their lives and their deaths and even what happened after they died,” she continued. “Importantly, we shouldn’t look at a state of collapse as the beginning of a ‘dark age,’ but rather view it as an era that breeds resilience and foments stunning innovation within the population.”


Ancient cranial surgery: bioarchaeologist studies trepanation

Some 900 years ago, a Peruvian healer used a hand drill to make dozens of small holes in a patient's skull. Credit: Danielle Kurin

Cranial surgery is tricky business, even under 21st-century conditions (think aseptic environment, specialized surgical instruments and copious amounts of pain medication both during and afterward).

However, evidence shows that healers in Peru practiced trepanation—a surgical procedure that involves removing a section of the cranial vault using a hand drill or a scraping tool—more than 1,000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments, from head injuries to heartsickness. And they did so without the benefit of the aforementioned medical advances.

Excavating burial caves in the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas in Peru, UC Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and her research team unearthed the remains of 32 individuals that date back to the Late Intermediate Period (ca. AD 1000-1250). Among them, 45 separate trepanation procedures were in evidence. Kurin's findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

"When you get a knock on the head that causes your brain to swell dangerously, or you have some kind of neurological, spiritual or psychosomatic illness, drilling a hole in the head becomes a reasonable thing to do," said Kurin, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCSB and a specialist in forensic anthropology.

According to Kurin, trepanations first appeared in the south-central Andean highlands during the Early Intermediate Period (ca. AD 200-600), although the technique was not universally practiced. Still, it was considered a viable medical procedure until the Spanish put the kibosh on the practice in the early 16th century.

But Kurin wanted to know how trepanation came to exist in the first place. And she looked to a failed empire to find some answers.

New bone growth at the trepanation site on the side of the head indicates a successful procedure. However, the holes drilled at the top of the skull were as the individual was dying or shortly after he died. Credit: Danielle Kurin

"For about 400 years, from 600 to 1000 AD, the area where I work—the Andahuaylas—was living as a prosperous province within an enigmatic empire known as the Wari," she said. "For reasons still unknown, the empire suddenly collapsed." And the collapse of civilization, she noted, brings a lot of problems.

"But it is precisely during times of collapse that we see people's resilience and moxie coming to the fore," Kurin continued. "In the same way that new types of bullet wounds from the Civil War resulted in the development of better glass eyes, the same way IED's are propelling research in prosthetics in the military today, so, too, did these people in Peru employ trepanation to cope with new challenges like violence, disease and depravation 1,000 years ago."

Kurin's research shows various cutting practices and techniques being employed by practitioners around the same time. Some used scraping, others used cutting and still others made use of a hand drill. "It looks like they were trying different techniques, the same way we might try new medical procedures today," she said. "They're experimenting with different ways of cutting into the skull."

Sometimes they were successful and the patient recovered, and sometimes things didn't go so well. "We can tell a trepanation is healed because we see these finger-like projections of bone that are growing," Kurin explained. "We have several cases where someone suffered a head fracture and were treated with the surgery in many cases, both the original wound and the trepanation healed." It could take several years for the bone to regrow, and in a subset of those, a trepanation hole in the patient's head might remain for the rest of his life, thereby conferring upon him a new "survivor" identity.

When a patient didn't survive, his skull (almost never hers, as the practice of trepanation on women and children was forbidden in this region) might have been donated to science, so to speak, and used for education purposes. "The idea with this surgery is to go all the way through the bone, but not touch the brain," said Kurin. "That takes incredible skill and practice.

"As bioarchaeologists, we can tell that they're experimenting on recently dead bodies because we can measure the location and depths of the holes they're drilling," she continued. "In one example, each hole is drilled a little deeper than the last. So you can imagine a guy in his prehistoric Peruvian medical school practicing with his hand drill to know how many times he needs to turn it to nimbly and accurately penetrate the thickness of a skull."

Some might consider drilling a hole in someone's head a form of torture, but Kurin doesn't perceive it as such. "We can see where the trepanations are. We can see that they're shaving the hair. We see the black smudge of an herbal remedy they put over the wound," she noted. "To me, those are signs that the intention was to save the life of the sick or injured individual."

The remains Kurin excavated from the caves in Andahuaylas comprise perhaps the largest well-contextualized collection in the world. Most of the trepanned crania already studied reside in museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum of Natural History or the Hearst Museum of Anthropology. "Most were collected by archaeologists a century ago and so we don't have good contextual information," she said.

But thanks to Kurin's careful archaeological excavation of intact tombs and methodical analysis of the human skeletons and mummies buried therein, she knows exactly where, when and how the remains she found were buried, as well as who and what was buried with them. She used radiocarbon dating and insect casings to determine how long the bodies were left out before they skeletonized or were mummified, and multi-isotopic testing to reconstruct what they ate and where they were born. "That gives us a lot more information," she said.

"These ancient people can't speak to us directly, but they do give us information that allows us to reconstruct some aspect of their lives and their deaths and even what happened after they died," she continued. "Importantly, we shouldn't look at a state of collapse as the beginning of a 'dark age,' but rather view it as an era that breeds resilience and foments stunning innovation within the population."


Watch the video: The Forerunners of the Incas - Now in High Quality Full Documentary


Comments:

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  4. Dom

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