The ancient settlement of Amato, in the Acari valley on the Peruvian south coast, was where lives would end in carnage. This area has been found to be the site of mass beheadings. In the central Andes region of South America, the earliest signs of human decapitation date back to pre-ceramic times (before c.2000 BC).
It is during the early intermediate (c.50 BC-AD 600) period that evidence for beheading becomes more prevalent on the south coast of Peru than anywhere else in western South America. Reasons for decapitations could be combat trophies, ritual beliefs, or criminal punishment.
Aztec skull racks (tzompantli) were used by the headhunters of Celtic Europe and Southeast Asia. The earliest signs of beheading were in the pre-ceramic times (before 2000 BC). The period is known as the early intermediate (50BC – 600AD) was when the decapitations became prevalent on the south coast of Peru.
In the central Andes, the German archaeologist Max Uhle is credited as the first researcher to have documented severed human heads that were described as ‘trophies’. Transforming a head into a trophy did not simply entail detaching it from the rest of the body. Instead, a hole was inserted in the frontal bone of the skull, while at its base an oval opening known as the foramen magnum was artificially enlarged. Archaeological traces of the tradition are not restricted to the heads themselves, as images also appear on ceramics and textiles produced along the Peruvian south coast during the Early Intermediate period.
On occasion, these heads are gripped by masked and elegantly dressed individuals, who can be recognized as mythical creatures. Since Uhle, body parts have been located in all of the river valleys along the Peruvian South Coast including the Acari Valley.
Some scholars believe that the heads were claimed in battle, while others argue that the act was ritual in nature and may be related to ancestor worship. Careful study of the heads has shown that trophies include males and females, as well as children. In some cases, where the trophy heads are particularly well preserved, it is also possible to observe fine cuts that were made on the scalp. If these were designed to cause bleeding, it is possible that blood-taking may have been one reason for decapitation.
A lot of the bones were found broken. In men, it is the arm bones that indicate parry fractures, but in women and children, the leg bones are more often broken.
The fractured bones show no signs of healing meaning these people must have perished shortly afterward. It is also found that some arms, and or legs were bound and no textiles are found with the bodies, meaning they were naked. In some cases, the bodies were placed individually, but in others, the corpses had been carelessly thrown onto the ground, so that they lay piled on top of each other. Afterward, they were simply covered with sand.
A particularly powerful and poignant example of this concerns a young-adult female who was bound at the ankles. The dry conditions resulted in part of her body being naturally mummified, revealing an unusually enlarged belly, which suggests that she was in an advanced state of pregnancy, had recently delivered a baby, or suffered an abortion shortly before death.
A child lay in front of her, while a fetus or newborn was found a short distance away. Both had been decapitated. In total, 72 headless individuals were discovered in the Amato compound. This represents the single largest group of decapitated bodies ever discovered in the central Andes. At the same time, it should be stressed that only part of the rectangular structure was excavated, making it possible that the true number of headless bodies is even higher.
Only a single adult male was found with his head still in place. This individual was aged 50+ and placed next to the remains of several dozen decapitated people. He was buried facing north and arranged in a seated position, while his entire body was wrapped in a plain mantle and secured with a long rope. A beautiful necklace made of small wing bones and shell beads was found around the man’s neck, while five young camelids and several pieces of worked Spondylus and shell beads lay nearby.
These were presumably deposited as offerings to this man. At the same level as his feet, we found a gourd and a deposition of peanut pods, while at head height lay another decapitated and naked body. It is notable that the base of his spine had fused both the lower vertebrae and the right pelvic bone, which may have made it impossible for him to walk. His teeth were also in a very poor state, but there was no sign of malnutrition, indicating that he was well cared for.
Could this be the community patriarch, who was forced to watch as his people were executed at the site? Or was it rather that the dead had been sacrificed to honor this man? These are crucial questions that, at present, remain difficult to answer.
The single most prominent feature of these sites is the presence of massive fortification walls. At some settlements, these fully enclose the site, with those at Amato totaling about 2,789 feet in length.
In other cases, as at Tambo Viejo and Monte Grande Alto, the defensive system combined walls on accessible approaches with natural barriers such as cliffs. At Tambo Viejo, the most substantial wall had a width of 20 feet, a height of at least 11.5 feet, and an approximate overall length of 5,742 feet (1 mile). Just what was the cause that triggered the practice of decapitations and trophy taking in this region? Where are all the heads?
- A tzompantli or skull rack is a type of wooden rack or palisade documented in several Mesoamerican civilizations, which was used for the public display of human skulls, typically those of war captives or other sacrificial victims. It is a scaffold-like construction of poles on which heads and skulls were placed after holes had been made in them. Many have been documented throughout Mesoamerica, and range from the Epiclassic (c. 600–900 CE) through early Post-Classic (c. 900–1250 CE). In 2017 archeologists announced the discovery of the Hueyi Tzompantli, with more than 650 skulls, in the archeological zone of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. [Back]
- Friedrich Max Uhle (March 25, 1856 – May 11, 1944) was a German archaeologist, whose work in Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia at the turn of the Twentieth Century had a significant impact on the practice of archaeology in South America. [Back]
- The foramen magnum is a large, oval-shaped opening in the occipital bone of the skull. It is one of the several ovals or circular openings (foramina) in the base of the skull. The spinal cord, an extension of the medulla oblongata, passes through the foramen magnum as it exits the cranial cavity. Apart from the transmission of the medulla oblongata and its membranes, the foramen magnum transmits the vertebral arteries, the anterior and posterior spinal arteries, the tectorial membranes, and alar ligaments. It also transmits the accessory nerve into the skull. [Back]
- A fracture, usually of a bone in the forearm, is caused by the victim trying to ward off a blow from a weapon. [Back]
- Spondylus is a genus of bivalve mollusks, the only genus in the family of Spondylidae. They are known in English as spiny oysters or thorny oysters (though they are not, in fact, true oysters). [Back]
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