Decapitated Skeleton of a Nascan Man & Head Jar

Archaeologist Christina Conlee, of the Texas State University, found a remarkable finding in 2004. She was digging at a site called La Tiza, in the Nasca region of Peru and unearthed a headless skeleton in a tomb.  Nascan Headless Skeleton & Head JarThe tomb is dated to be from around 450-550 AD. The man was found without his head and sitting cross-legged. A ceramic “head jar” was placed to the left of the body.

This was the third skeleton of its kind to be found in Nasca this way. Here’s how Conlee interprets the finding,

“The age and condition of both the body and the jar, which is painted with two inverted human faces, suggests that the victim was killed in a rite of ancestral worship.”

Conlee has published her findings in Current Anthropology, titled, “Decapitation and Rebirth,” and has summariezed her findings and analysis in an interview with National Geographic News,

“This placement suggests that the killing was an act of ancestral worship and that the sacrifice was meant to honor the forebears buried in the cemetery, Conlee said.

“This man may have been sacrificed in order to appease the ancestors of the community and therefore ensure continuation of life at the villages,” she explained.

“This person was sacrificed during Middle Nasca, which was a time of great change,” Conlee added. “It is known that throughout the Andes human sacrifice was performed in times of change to give gods an important gift to allow the people to continue.”

Moche Sacrifice IllustrationThe archaeologist also noted that the head jar is painted with the reversible image of a human face that can be seen right-side up or upside down, suggesting that the jar might have been meant as a substitute for the victim’s missing head.

“The La Tiza head jar was a rather literal replacement and reflects the Nasca belief that a person needed to have a head when he entered the afterlife,” Conlee said.

The jar also bears evidence of having been used before the burial. Conlee said that decorations on head jars suggest they were used for both human- and crop-fertility rituals.

“Head jars often have images of plants growing out of them, suggesting a direct link to agriculture fertility, as well as a desire to continue the fertility of the people in the community,” she said.

This headless skeleton has rekindled the debate over human sacrifice in the ancient Andes. The Moche are well known to have practiced decapitation, bloodletting, and human sacrifice. Symbols of death are found everywhere. For example, decapitation, and more importantly, ritual sacrifice, is the theme in their pottery, textiles, and metallurgy. The image below is of a Moche sacrifice ceremony made from a rollout of Moche Pottery.

Sacrifice Ceremony Rollout on Moche Pottery

So sacrifice is found throughout the Moche iconography, and it seemed to have been a fundamental element of this culture. But the Nasca didn’t necessarily exhibit this to the extent the Moche did. Makes me wonder if three headless skeletons and their head jars mean that the Nasca also sacrificed people or just that they had a unique way of burying their dead?

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5 thoughts on “Decapitated Skeleton of a Nascan Man & Head Jar

  1. It’s possible that the head became disarticulated and rolled away. The fact that the skeleton was found in a seated position makes it more possible. Are there any signs of decapitation, like cut marks on the cervical vertebrae?

  2. Keith,

    Thanks for commenting. What you’ve questioned is definitely possible but not necessarily probable. I’ll tell you why.

    Firstly, the man is propped up and buried in a grave, check out the above photo. If he wasn’t buried in a grave, then yes, his head would have likely disarticulated after a certain stage in decomposition. But he was buried, staged up/rested against the wall of his grave. If his head did fall off, we’d expect it somewhere in the walls of his grave.

    Secondly, and to answer your question, Conlee mentioned in the National Geographic interview that,

    “The skeleton … bears gruesome evidence of the decapitation, including cut marks indicating that the bone was fresh when damaged… ‘Someone spent quite a bit of effort cutting off the head,’ mostly likely with a sharp obsidian knife.”

    With only a skeleton and a jar, we will never truly know what exactly happened to his head and where it is. Without more evidence, it is hard to say if the cut marks on the bone happened at the time of death or immediately after. What the cut marks can only tell us, however, is that his head was removed.

    So what that said, the possibility he was sacrificed or executed is a likely explanation as is a unique burial ritual, as I questioned. Maybe in ancient Nascan culture keeping the heads of your dead ancestors was kosher? I don’t enough about the Nascan to say that’s true or not, anyone out there that can? But my hypothesis is also another possible explanation given that he was buried with a specialized head jar along with him. Sometimes the sacrifice card isn’t trumped-up to be what it is, especially given the context that Nascan culture hasn’t yet yielded many other sacrifice warning signs to be thinking that way.

    Anyways, thanks for commenting. Got me to think this Saturday morning. Nice blog, by the way!


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