9,000 Year-Old Skull and Severed Hands Might Be Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World

KS_LOGOs2_HumanScientists made a very creepy discovery in a cave in Brazil – a 9,000 year-old decapitated skull covered by two severed hands. Researchers have concluded that the skull and hands found below represent the oldest case of decapitation in the New World. 💀


The remains, known as Burial 26, were found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo, an archaeological site that has yielded 26 human burials. The grave, which was excavated in 2007, consists of a circular pit covered in limestone slabs. Under one of these slabs is where the skull and amputated hands were found.

André Strauss from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and his colleagues wrote that using cranial morphology and tooth wear they have decided the individual was most likely a young adult male. According to the study, decapitation was likely common in the New World, but this case raises questions about how the morbid practice began in the Americas.

“Few Amerindian habits impressed the European colonizers more than the taking and displaying of human body parts, especially when decapitation was involved,” said Strauss.

The skull was buried about 22 inches below the surface suggesting it was a deliberate ritual entombment, not the result of an enemy trophy. The placement of the hands in opposite directions on the skull leads researchers to believe it was a ritualized decapitation. See more photos here!

“The careful arrangement of the hands over the face is compatible with an important public display component in the ritual that could have worked to enhance social cohesion within the community,” Strauss said.

Scientists hope to analyze the DNA of the remains in the near future to learn more about who they belonged to. The findings were published online Sept. 23 in the journal PLOS ONE.

9,000 Year-Old Skull and Severed Hands Might Be Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World

Pile of Bones in South African Cave Reveal Mysterious New Human Species

KS_LOGOs2_HumanScientists in South Africa have discovered a new species of human, Homo naledi. Its physical attributes are bizarre, its age is unknown, and its burial circumstances are baffling.

Pieces of a skeleton of Homo naledi, a newly discovered human species. Credit John Hawks/University of Wisconsin-Madison, via European Pressphoto Agency
Pieces of a skeleton of Homo naledi, a newly discovered human species. Credit John Hawks/University of Wisconsin-Madison, via European Pressphoto AgencyaqACFV

The bones were collected from a chamber 100 feet below ground within the Rising Star cave system in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind region, which is known for its human fossils. Some 1,550 specimens of bones and teeth were recovered, belonging to at least 15 different skeletons, but that only represents a fraction of the material at the site. The name H. naledi refers to the cave where the bones were found; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.

The research paper published in the journal eLife on September 10th explains that modern humans, or Homo sapiens, are now the only living species in their genus. But as recently as 20,000 years ago there were other species that belonged to the genus Homo. Together with modern humans, these extinct human species, our immediate ancestors and their close relatives are collectively referred to as ‘hominins’.

H. naledi stood at about 5 feet tall, with a small brain, clever hands, and an ape-like torso that was built for walking upright as well as climbing. This unique blend of traits is what expedition leader Dr. Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand feels classifies it a new species of human.

Scientists don’t quite know where to place H. naledi on the human family tree. So far, researchers haven’t been able to determine the age of the bones. They could be several million years old or tens of thousands of years old. Also curious is whether or not this primitive creature decided to bury their dead together intentionally.

Click here for an in-depth piece by National Geographic delving into the discovery of H. naledi and how this new species changes the human story.


Pile of Bones in South African Cave Reveal Mysterious New Human Species

One-of-a-Kind Mosaics Discovered in Ancient Israeli Synagogue

KS_LOGOs2_HumanI first fell in love with mosaics when I was studying art history in Florence, Italy, from 2008-2009. There is something amazing about small pieces of glass or stone, painstakingly placed together, depicting religious scenes, everyday life, and a civilization’s hope for the future.

I was in awe of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, the Christ Pantocrator in Pisa, and the breathtaking mosaics covering the ceiling of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. But, we aren’t talking about Italy – today, we are talking about mosaics discovered on the floor of an ancient synagogue in Israel that are very special.

UNC professor Jodi Magness (center) and UNC students (left to right) Brian Coussens, Caroline Carter, Jocelyn Burney, Jonathan Branch, and Kelly Gagnon, with the 2012 Huqoq mosaic. (Photo by Jim Haberman)

Jodi Magness, an archeologist at UNC Chapel Hill, has been leading excavations at the ancient Jewish city of Huqoq in Israel since 2011. After the first mosaics appeared on the floor of a buried synagogue in 2012, Magness and her team have returned to the site every June to uncover more fantastic mosaics.

“The mosaics were a complete surprise,” says Magness. “Synagogues of this particular type—which is best represented by the synagogue at Capernaum just a couple of miles away—typically don’t have mosaic floors. They have flagstone pavements.”

But, that isn’t the only thing that makes these mosaics one-of-a-kind. Magness and her team were surprised by the subject matter, which involves elephants, dancers, and possibly Alexander the Great. Magness feels the images in these mosaics, as well as their high level of artistic quality, make them truly unique. Click here for more details on the mosaics, and click here for information about the Huqoq excavation site!

Archaeologist may have finished up at Huqoq this season, but hopefully next summer they make more exciting discoveries.

One-of-a-Kind Mosaics Discovered in Ancient Israeli Synagogue