North Carolina researchers helped uncover some clues about a unique discovery in Ecuador.
Infants were found buried on the central coast wearing “helmets” that were made of the skulls of other children, according to the abstract of a study published in Latin American Antiquity.
Richard Lunniss, a co-author of the study who lives nearby, saw construction had “disturbed some archaeological remains” and got the construction to stop so he could do a “salvage excavation,” said Sara Juengst, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
During the excavation, he discovered some of the burials were “really weird” and needed the help of a bone expert, according to Juengst. Because of the construction, he brought them to a lab for analysis.
“So I kinda inserted myself into the project at that point,” Juengst said.
Juengst, along with a master’s student from UNC-Charlotte and other co-authors of the study, spent the summer of 2018 analyzing the discoveries.
There were two infants wearing the “helmets,” and researchers determined one of them was about 18 months old and the other was between 6 and 9 months old, Juengst said.
The ages of the children whose skulls were being worn by the infants is harder to estimate, she says, but based on the thinness of the skulls, they were likely between 2 and 12 years old.
They date back to about 100 B.C., the study’s abstract says.
“This is closely related with a layer of volcanic ash, which is really nice because we can date that,” Juengst said.
Researchers also have clues about why this was done.
Juengst said there could have been widespread malnutrition or disease, possibly in the wake of a volcanic eruption, and the “helmets” could have been used as an extra precaution for the infants in the afterlife.
In South American culture, heads were seen as a symbol for “ancestry and power” in general, she said, and people could have been trying to make sure the infants had “access to whatever the afterlife was seen as.”
But Juengst doesn’t think there’s anywhere else where this specific ritual has been seen.
“There are lots of burials in South America that have additional skulls included in them but never with the skull worn as a helmet, as kind of a hat,” she said.
She said researchers don’t think the children or infants were sacrificed and there wasn’t evidence of trauma.
She emphasized that this isn’t necessarily “some kind of brutal, ritual killing of kids in the past.”
“We can’t fully eliminate that but it seems much more likely that this was about a lot of kids dying maybe in traumatic ways in the sense of from an epidemic disease or something like that.”
She said it could have been a ritual aspect of “getting control back over the universe or trying to honor these kids or protect them in the afterlife.”