Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Trophy Heads: Gruesome Practices from the Nazca Civilisation

Nasca trophy head from a tomb at the site of Cahuachi (Field Museum 1694.170150)

by Kathryn Hadley
In 1925, the American anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876-1960) discovered a series of ‘trophy heads’ at six different sites in the region on the southern coast of Peru at the heart of the Nazca civilization, which flourished from approximately the first to the eighth centuries AD. The lips of the heads were sewn together with cactus spines and all the heads featured a hole in the centre of the forehead through which a carrying rope was inserted. Their meaning has remained a myth, however, for the past 100 years. Were they war trophies? Were they the heads of venerated ancestors, which bore a religious significance and were used in rituals or offerings?

Recent research has, however, revealed the geographical origins of the trophy heads, providing new clues as to their significance. Archaeologists compared strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotope data found in the tooth enamel of 16 of the trophy heads, originally discovered in 1925 and currently held at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, with that from 13 mummified bodies buried in the Nazca region. The atomic structures of strontium, oxygen, and carbon vary by geographical location, thus reflecting where the person lived and his or her diet.

The results of the study, published online on December 11th in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, concluded that the trophy heads did not come from a distinct geographical region and that the individuals in the study consumed similar diets. The trophy heads came from the local Nazca population, rather than from a neighbouring enemy civilisation, thus hinting that they may have been used in rituals. Widespread depictions of trophy heads on painted pottery from the late Nazca period suggest that collecting and displaying trophy heads was a relatively common practice amongst the Nazca civilisation.

Nevertheless, researchers do not rule out that the heads may have also served as war trophies. Paintings on pottery often reveal warriors holding trophy heads, which may have come from warring in the Nazca area. Considering the extensive lifespan of the Nazca culture over more than seven centuries, it also seems likely that the role and purpose of trophy heads evolved over time.

In the words of Professor Kelly Knudson, the lead author of the study from Arizona State University:

"It is possible that the role of the trophy heads changed over time. It is possible that these individuals were sacrificed, but we don't have any evidence for that".

Italian Archaeologist Giuseppe Orefici, who has worked since 1982 excavating the ancient Nazca ceremonial city of Cahuachi, approximately 28 kilometres away from the modern city of Nazca, explained how:

"In 26 years of digging at Cahuachi, we have never come across any head used as a war trophy […] We are rather talking of 'offering heads' used in rituals. They belong to people of both sexes and in most cases they have been buried inside the ceremonial center. The images of disembodied heads in pottery and textiles are either representations of myths or indicate the high social status of the people who carry them".

1 comment:

Cliff said...

I do not think these were trophy heads. The imagery of figures carrying such heads is related to a cosmological statement that such heads were the faces of chieftains. Such imagery is composed of gesture signs and sources such as Garrick Mallery state that the sign for a chieftain was one of grasping the forelocks of hair a few inches above the forehead.

The imagery on Nazca, Moche and other culture's ceramics display such heads as part of a larger message involving the ascension of the leaders to the sky in the after-life. The scenes in which such severed heads are found were probably based on rituals related to the death and after-life (especially those of leaders and soldiers of warrior societies). Such scenes tell us how these rituals were played out much as a modern nativity scene is played out at Christmas.

Thus the individual carrying the severed head is telling the audience how the spirit of the deceased chieftain appeared during a phase of the afterlife. The gesture signs that make up the imagery and scenes tell us more about the content of the cosmology.

Anyone interested in further details about Native American written gesture signs may find them at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/11827489/The-Hole-In-The-Fairfield-Gorget


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