If you’ve been too busy binge-watching Disney+ to check out this quarter’s Latin American Antiquity, you haven’t seen one of the wilder studies we’ve seen in a while.
“Unique Infant Mortuary Ritual at Salango, Ecuador, 100 BC” is a title that undersells its subject. The study details excavations led by Richard Lunniss of the Universidad Tecnica de Manabi at “a ritual complex on the central coast of Ecuador,” specifically two burial mounds from about 2,100 years ago. Among the 11 identified burials, two were infants wearing “‘helmets’ made from the cranial vaults of other juveniles.”
Translation: they were infants wearing the skulls of other kids, one of the most metal things any archaeological dig has ever uncovered. Whoa.
Here’s what else we know about these kids, who were literally wearing skulls as hats when they were discovered. No trauma was recorded for either infant, one of which was around 18 months and the other six to nine months old. The ages of the kids the “helmets” came from were a bit greater, between two and 12 years old, presumably because a skull you wear as a helmet has to be bigger than your own.
Unfortunately, we can only speculate about the meaning of this ritual. Heads were symbolic of “belonging, status, fertility, dominance, and control” in the ancient Americas. The researchers wrote that they “may represent an attempt to ensure the protection of these ‘presocial and wild’ souls,” and the presence of stone ancestor figurines around the bodies suggests “a concern with protecting and further empowering the heads.”
The team will use DNA and strontium isotopes to hopefully understand the relationship between the buried infants and the older kids whose skulls they’d wear.
Sara Juengst, one of the authors of the study, told Gizmodo that as crazy as we might imagine the circumstances around these skull helmets to be, we should be mindful of our modern biases when speculating about this discovery.
“Guangala people had their own conception of the cosmos and what happens after death, and the significance of human bodies. While we are usually averse to handling dead bodies, there is a lot of precedent around the world of cultures who don’t have this aversion—we need to think about things in their own context as much as possible and try to keep our own prejudices or ideas about ‘right/wrong’ out of the analysis.”