The bodies of two babies found at an ancient burial site in Ecuador had been wearing the skulls of older children at the time of their burial.
This marks the very first piece of archaeological evidence to suggest children’s skulls had been used as burial headgear in the ancient world.
The skeletal remains of 11 people were found beneath two burial mounds, dating back to around 100 BCE. This included four infants, two of which were wearing the eerie skull helmets.
One of these infants had been just 18 months old when they died, and had been buried wearing parts of a skull belonging to a child between the ages of four and 12 years old.
The skull had been positioned in a ‘helmet-like fashion around the head of the first, such that the primary individual’s face looked through’, according to findings which have now been published in the academic journal Latin American Antiquity.
The team of researchers – led by University of North Carolina at Charlotte anthropologist Sara Juengst – also found a shell and a child’s finger bone in-between the ‘helmet’ and the baby’s head, having apparently been placed there deliberately.
The other baby had been around six to nine months old when they died, and was found to be wearing the skull fragments of a child between the ages of two and 12 years old.
It’s believed the ‘helmets’ were probably still covered in flesh when they were fitted on the babies, as they had fitted tightly and stayed that way for thousands of years. While children’s skulls reportedly don’t stay intact very well, the skin and tissue had likely held them together .
The find has left the team perplexed. While the study remarks that the human head represented a ‘potent symbol for many South American cultures’, child skulls were rarely used in such a way.
The paper suggests the skulls could have been used for the purposes of protecting or ‘further empowering’ the babies as they entered the afterlife, with such infants believed to have ‘pre-social’ and ‘wild’ souls.
Juengst told Forbes:
We’re still pretty shocked by the find, Not only is it unprecedented, there are still so many questions.
[There are] various possibilities for the origin of the extra crania, from potentially curated ancestor skulls to them being worn in life as well as in death, so we definitely have a lot of ideas to work with.
There is no evidence to suggest the babies were sacrificed, with signs of malnutrition and disease pointing towards natural causes.
Going forward, researchers hope DNA and isotope analyses will confirm if the babies were related to those whose skulls were used as helmets.
The paper details various possibilities for the origin of the skull helmets, however its believed the burials provide evidence of ancient traditions related to ancient notions of ‘rebirth’.
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Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.