9,500-year-old funerary rituals involving the reduction of fresh corpses discovered in east central Brazil

November 30, 2016, Max Planck Society
9,500-year-old funerary rituals involving the reduction of fresh corpses discovered in east central Brazil
9,500-year-old skull cap used as funerary receptacle. The mutilated and burnt bones of the same individual were deposited inside. Credit: LEEH-USP

Findings from Lapa do Santo show oldest evidence in the continent of humans performing elaborated funerary rituals based on the manipulation and reduction of fresh corpses and the reorganization of body parts.

In eastern South America skeletal remains dating to 10,000 years ago are rare, precluding the proper study of their ritual dimensions. In a study published this week in the journal Antiquity, an international research team led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and the University of São Paulo, Brazil, present their new findings on 26 human burials that date to this period and had been discovered at the archaeological cave site Lapa do Santo in east central Brazil.

"The Lagoa Santa region is known since the early 19th century due to the work of the Danish naturalist Peter Lund. During the following decades, many international research teams went to the region looking for evidence of the coexistence between humans and megafauna", says André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "Although hundreds of early Holocene skeletons were exhumed in the process, little has been reported about funerary rituals. Therefore, the ample diversity and elevated elaboration of the burials at Lapa do Santo at first struck us as a great surprise."

Burial 34 during exhumation in 2014. Credit: André Strauss

The use of Lapa do Santo as an interment ground started between 10,300 and 10,600 years ago with the burial of complete skeletons. Between 9,400 and 9,600 years ago the reduction of the body by means of mutilation, defleshing, tooth removal, exposure to fire and possibly cannibalism, followed by the secondary burial of the remains according to strict rules, became a central element in the treatment of the dead.

In the absence of monumental architecture or grave goods, these groups were using parts of fresh corpses to elaborate their rituals, showing this practice was not restricted to the Andean region at the beginning of the Holocene. Between 8,200 and 8,600 years ago another change occurred whereby pits were instead filled with disarticulated bones of a single individual without signs of body manipulation. Those changes show that during the early Archaic, Lagoa Santa was a region inhabited by dynamic groups that were in constant transformation over a period of centuries.

"In reconstructing the life of past populations, human burials are highly informative of symbolic and ritual behavior. In this frame, the funerary record presented in this study highlights that the human groups inhabiting east South America at 10,000 years ago were more diverse and sophisticated than previously thought", says Strauss. "The strong emphasis on the reduction of fresh corpses explains why these fascinating mortuary practices were not recognized during almost two centuries of research in the region."

Explore further: 9,000 year-old ritualized decapitation found in Brazil

More information: André Strauss et al. Early Holocene ritual complexity in South America: the archaeologicalrecord of Lapa do Santo (east-central Brazil), Antiquity (2016). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2016.220

Related Stories

9,000 year-old ritualized decapitation found in Brazil

September 23, 2015

A 9,000 year-old case of human decapitation has been found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in Brazil, according to a study published September 23, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by André Strauss from the Max ...

Evidence of early medieval Muslim graves found in France

February 24, 2016

Archaeological and genetic analysis may indicate that three skeletons buried in medieval graves in France may have been Muslim, according to a study published February 24, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Yves ...

Recommended for you

Fat from 558 million years ago reveals earliest known animal

September 20, 2018

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) and overseas have discovered molecules of fat in an ancient fossil to reveal the earliest confirmed animal in the geological record that lived on Earth 558 million ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

katesisco
1 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2016
Tim and HeatherLee Hooker have a video on Megalithomania.com on research into Shu Nun in Ukraine. Underneath Shu Nun are many caves and grottos containing what is possibly pre Sumerian writing. These explain an elaborate burial process including dismemberment and interment of humans and animals.
The dating is possibly 20,000 y ago and possibly has references to Indra and Vishnu.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.