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This 9,000-year-old ritual decapitation may have been one of America’s first

The Brazilian skull shows signs of a ritualistic burial. (Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Sao Paulo/PLOS)

Researchers believe that a 9,000-year-old skull found in Brazil could be the oldest ever example of decapitation in the Americas.

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The remains, which are described in a study published Wednesday in PLOS, were found in an archaeological site called Lapa do Santo, where signs of human occupation date back 12,000 years. The bones belong to a young man -- most likely a member of the community, not an outsider -- and his skull and hands have been eerily arranged: His jaw and vertebrae showed v-shaped markings, and his hands (also severed) were placed over his skull, with his left hand pointing up on the right side of his face and the right hand pointing down on the left.

The find pushes the origin of decapitation on this continent back by nearly 4,000 years, as well as increasing the geographical range where it's known to have occurred.

Based on their analysis of the remains, the researchers believe this was a complex, perhaps honorific ritual carried out after the young man had already died -- not the result of a disagreement.

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Although the authors write in the paper that "no straightforward method is available to determine the nature of a severed head," they believe they can rule out that it was taken for a trophy, as was common in other areas where decapitation occurred. There was no sign of an attempt to remove the brain, or to drill holes in order to make some carrying apparatus for the head. 

Instead, they suggest, the strange markings and arrangement could be some reflection of the group's beliefs about the afterlife. "In the apparent absence of wealth goods or elaborate architecture, Lagoa Santa’s inhabitants seemed to be using the human body to reify and express their cosmological principles concerning death," the authors write.

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