Lapa do Santo: Decapitation and ritual in ‘the Saint’s rock shelter’

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Inside Lapa do Santo, excavations are revealing the complex burial practices of an early Archaic community. André Strauss tells CWA about the grisly finds.

Delicate grave removal work under way near the cave entrance.

Body mutilation, decapitation, defleshing, and possible cannibalism: these chilling descriptions seem more appropriate for a serial killer’s to-do list than for an archaeological project report. But as queasy as they might make modern researchers, strictly regulated rituals involving fresh corpses were a crucial reification of cosmological ideas and belief systems for ancient hunter-gatherers in east-central Brazil. The site of Lapa do Santo, a rock shelter beneath the slope of a 30m-high limestone massif in the tropical savannah, offers a rare glimpse into these symbolic ceremonies, and an ongoing project – a joint venture between the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany) and the Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil) – is shedding new light on what took place there more than 9,500 years ago.

Dwellers in the dark

The rock shelter is located within the Lagoa Santa region, a karstic landscape comprising some 360km², often described as the ‘cradle of Brazilian palaeontology’. The area has been of great interest for researchers since the early 19th century, particularly because of sites such as Sumidouro Cave, where human skeletons were found associated with bones of extinct megafauna – a key point of evidence for scholars seeking to confirm coexistence hypotheses, and an inspiration for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Drone view of the Lapa do Santo entrance.

Excavations over nearly two centuries have revealed a fragmented picture of the earliest human exploration of the region and gradual community adaption to the local environment. Sometime between 11,700 and 12,700 years ago, with most of the interior savannah already occupied, a group of hunter-gatherers began to regularly visit Lapa do Santo. Best characterised as ‘generalist foragers’, the early inhabitants of Lapa do Santo moved throughout a relatively small area, relying heavily on vegetable foods and aquatic (when available) items for subsistence, while also hunting small- to mid-sized animals. They left few material remains – no wealth goods or elaborate architecture – and are best identified through associated lithic technology and bone artefacts such as spatulas, burins, and fishhooks.

The symbolic realm of the early Holocene occupants of the Lagoa Santa region is particularly difficult to access. Low-relief rock art is present at some sites, and at Lapa do Santo early Holocene pictorial imagery included abstract, anthropomorphic figures with phalluses. But, owing to their comparatively good preservation, human burial remains offer the best window into the ritualistic behaviour of these communities. Yet, while decades of research in Lagoa Santa have yielded hundreds of skeletons, scholars seemed to have little to interpret: it appeared that early Archaic mortuary practices were simple and homogeneous, consisting of only primary interments without grave goods. These burials seemed in stark contrast to the more elaborate, contemporary examples in the western part of South America. Were the early inhabitants of east-central Brazil simply more conservative in their treatment of the dead? Or did the yawning cliff-side caves have more secrets to reveal?

Living with the dead

New excavations began at Lapa do Santo in 2001 and are ongoing. Researchers have uncovered 40 human burials so far, in an array of deposition types beforehand unknown in the region. There was no formal cemetery at Lapa do Santo; instead, graves were strewn throughout the site, with domestic activities taking place right on top of or next to them.

Skull covered by amputated hands: the oldest decapitation of the New World.

Beginning around 9,400 to 9,600 years ago, mortuary practices at Lapa do Santo shifted dramatically. Rather than laying the dead to rest in the single, flexed burial types of generations past, the inhabitants of Lapa do Santo introduced a new corporal repertoire involving organised disarticulation of the deceased. Some individuals were simply dismembered shortly after death and buried without their limbs, while other burials comprised solely of isolated bones, sometimes burnt or with evidence of gnaw marks.

The disarticulated remains were often grouped together as well. Burial 26, the oldest known case of decapitation in the Americas, included a head and cervical vertebrae that were cut with stone flakes. Two amputated hands were spread, one on each side of the face, arranged in opposite orientations (with the fingertips pointing either towards the forehead or the chin). The isotopic signature of the skull suggests this was a local member of the group and, therefore, that the burial may be an example of a ritualised corpse manipulation rather than a war trophy.

Other graves included skeletal remains decorated with red pigment and arranged in several combinations, such as an infant skull paired with post-cranial (non-skeletal) bones from numerous adults or an adult skull with post-cranial bones from several infants. One example included a skullcap used as a funerary receptacle and filled with chopped burnt bones; another featured a cranial segment filled with a cache of teeth from many individuals. Defleshing marks and signs of burning – some of which occurred while the soft tissue was still present – are common: potential leftovers from cannibalism.

A thousand years later, burial practices changed again. Shallow, circular pits were filled with disarticulated bones, usually of single individuals of various sexes and ages. Circular stone structures marked some of the graves, and the careful anatomical selection and subsequent interment seems to have been phased out.

Piecing it together

So what can we reconstruct from all these broken bones? For one, excavations at Lapa do Santo have vastly complicated previous simplistic interpretations of the cosmological world of these hunter-gatherers. The diversity of contemporary funerary practices and the transitions from one burial form to another suggest that east-central Brazil was inhabited by at least one dynamic cultural group (if not more) in constant transformation throughout the early Archaic period. Grisly corporeal manipulation may have provided a necessary social structure in an increasingly hierarchical society.

This article appears in CWA 81Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.


Excavation at Lapa do Santo, which translates as the Saint’s Rock Shelter.


Text: Nicholas Bartos

Images: Artur Magalhaes; Danilo Bernardo; André Strauss; Andersen Lyrio

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