“When archaeologists find isolated crania or headless burials in situ…two potential behaviors are typically considered…trophy-taking and ancestor worship…(t)he former implicates violent scenarios…the latter has a non-violent interpretation, suggesting emotional attachments to deceased individuals from the community [Eerkens et al. 2016].
Our Lab Director, Laura Brink Harold, M.A., and her co-authors argue the latter for Early-period societies in Central California in the January 2016 edition of American Antiquity in the article “Trophy Heads or Ancestor Veneration? A Stable Isotope Perspective on Disassociated and Modified Crania in Precontact Central California” citing contextual site information, stable isotope analyses, and research of regional sites.
Following discussions with the Most Likely Descendant, co-author Ramona Garibay, the team employed stable isotope analyses to determine if isolated crania associated with site CA-CCO-548 derived from local residents or non-local individuals. Samples of bone, tooth, and calculus from approximately 200 individuals began the process of reconstructing life histories for those interred at the site. Comparable isotopic results from isolated crania and headless burials support the hypothesis of ancestor veneration.
Abstract: Few items in the archaeological record capture the imagination more than human heads separated from their bodies. Such items are sometimes assumed to indicate warfare practices, where “trophy heads” display power and fighting prowess. Other times, they are interpreted as representing ancestor veneration. Isolated crania are not uncommon in the Early period (ca. 4500–2500 B.P.) in Central California. Some anthropologists interpret them as trophy heads, but isotopic analyses at CA-CCO-548 suggest an alternative interpretation. Strontium isotope analyses on one modified cranium produced values consistent with local individuals, and both headless burials and people buried with extra skulls overlap in carbon and nitrogen isotopes. Further, teeth from two individuals who were buried with extra skulls suggest both were weaned at early ages (before age 2), much earlier than other individuals at the site. Together with contextual information, we argue that the isotopic data are more consistent with the hypothesis that extra skulls and headless burials represent ancestor veneration rather than trophies, shedding new light on Early-period societies in Central California.
Trophy Heads or Ancestor Veneration? A Stable Isotope Perspective on Disassociated and Modified Crania in Pre-Contact Central California. American Antiquity 81(1):114-131.