There can sometimes be a sense that the distant past was a relatively peaceful place compared to the modern world. It is certainly comforting to imagine ancient peoples conducting their lives in a more amicable manner. Looking a little deeper, though, reveals a darker side to the past, which could be every bit as bloody and horrifying as the massacres staining more recent centuries. Archaeological research demonstrates that ancient communities could face brutal treatment that sometimes ended in carnage. The south coast of Peru was no exception to this brutality, with excavations at the ancient settlement of Amato revealing disquieting details about the circumstances surrounding an episode of mass decapitation.
As is well known, the deliberate removal of people’s heads has occurred at many different times and places around the world, for motives as varied as combat trophies, ritual belief, and criminal punishment. Examples include Aztec skull racks (tzompantli), and the headhunters once active in parts of Celtic Europe and Southeast Asia. In the central Andes region of South America, the earliest signs of human decapitation date back to pre-ceramic times (before c.2000 BC). It is during the period known as the Early Intermediate (c.50 BC – AD 600), though, that evidence for beheading becomes more prevalent on the south coast of Peru than anywhere else in western South America.
In the central Andes, the German archaeologist Max Uhle is credited as the first researcher to have documented severed human heads that were described as ‘trophies’. Since then, such modified body parts have been identified in all the river valleys along the Peruvian south coast, including the Acari valley. These human heads can occur individually, in small groups, or as much larger concentrations. Transforming a head into a trophy did not simply entail detaching it from the rest of the body. Instead, a hole was inserted in the frontal bone of the skull, while at its base an oval opening known as the foramen magnum was artificially enlarged. Archaeological traces of the tradition are not restricted to the heads themselves, as images also appear on ceramics and textiles produced along the Peruvian south coast during the Early Intermediate period. On occasion, these heads are gripped by masked and elegantly dressed individuals, who can be recognised as mythical creatures.
All of this raises a key, long-standing question: where were these trophies coming from? One factor influencing the answer must be the motivation behind the practice. Here, though, opinions differ. Some scholars believe that the heads were claimed in battle, while others argue that the act was ritual in nature and may be related to ancestor worship. Careful study of the heads has shown that trophies include males and females, as well as children. In some cases, where the trophy heads are particularly well preserved, it is also possible to observe fine cuts that were made on the scalp. If these were designed to cause bleeding, it is possible that blood-taking may have been one reason for decapitation.
The widespread occurrence of trophy heads draws attention to the relative scarcity of headless corpses in the region. On one hand, this could support the idea that trophy heads were taken in battle, specifically battles that were fought elsewhere. On the other hand, though, researchers have noted that the trophy heads share numerous physical characteristics with the remains of locals who were not decapitated, suggesting similar origins. If so, the apparent absence of decapitated bodies might instead be due to a modern problem rife in the region: illegal looting. Once burial places have been ransacked and the skeletons reduced to a mass of scattered bones, it becomes very difficult to identify whether a few of the bodies had been beheaded. By contrast, no matter how badly looted a site has been, any trophy heads left behind by the plunderers can be easily recognised thanks to the hole in the front of the skull.
Bodies of evidence
Important evidence for understanding how and why trophy heads were taken has been found in the Acari valley. This narrow natural corridor was carved out by the river of the same name, which barely carries water outside of the rainy season in the adjacent highlands (from November to April). Beyond the riverbanks the land is driest desert, forming a sea of inhospitable sand dunes. Despite the limited availability of both arable land and water, the valley became home to communities of early farmers. By the time of the Early Intermediate period, several relatively large walled settlements had developed along the middle and lower reaches of the Acari valley. The site of Amato was among them.
Amato made a lasting impression on me when I first visited in 1987. I was particularly intrigued by an aspect of its layout. Positioned centrally within the walled settlement was a square enclosure with high adobe walls. That, in turn, contained another, smaller rectangular structure. While I was inspecting it, I noticed a fragment of worked Spondylus shell, and recalled one of my undergraduate lectures, when it was emphasised that in ancient Peru such shells were highly valued and used in ritual celebrations. The presence of a Spondylus shell in a compound occupying the prime position within Amato suggested that the complex had once held great significance for its inhabitants.
Given the clear archaeological potential of Amato, I long harboured a desire to dig there. That desire eventually became a reality. When the opportunity to investigate the site finally arrived, I elected to focus on the central location for obvious reasons. Work had only been underway for a few days when the first important findings emerged. Well-preserved and articulated human skeletons were uncovered at several locations within the rectangular structure. In some cases, the bodies were placed individually, but in others the corpses had been carelessly thrown onto the ground, so that they lay piled on top of each other. Afterwards, they were simply covered with sand. By any standards this was a remarkable discovery, but what made it truly extraordinary was that these skeletons were missing their heads.
The bodies preserved a wealth of archaeological clues about the circumstances surrounding their decapitation. The picture they present cannot be anything but unsettling to modern eyes. As a first step, we examined the uppermost spine vertebrae of the deceased, which revealed the presence of cut marks, making it certain that the individuals that we found inside the rectangular structure had been deliberately decapitated. What is more, these incisions prove that the heads were removed while the soft tissue was still present, rather than occurring long after death.
It was not only heads that were removed, as clothing is also missing. We can be confident that this is not a product of preservation at the site. As noted, the region is an arid one, and textiles are often found there. Indeed, in one exceptional case at Amato, a length of textile was found around the waist of a young male, who had been pushed onto the ground from behind. Given that fabric could survive, the absence of garments strongly suggests that these individuals were naked as they faced their final moments. Even more revealing about the events that unfolded at Amato is that several victims had their wrists and ankles bound with ropes, indicating that they were captives and met their deaths while restrained.
A particularly powerful and poignant example of this concerns a young-adult female who was bound at the ankles. The dry conditions resulted in part of her body being naturally mummified, revealing an unusually enlarged belly, which suggests that she was in an advanced state of pregnancy, had recently delivered a baby, or suffered an abortion shortly before death. A child lay in front of her, while a foetus or newborn was found a short distance away. Both had been decapitated.
Study of the Amato skeletons leaves no doubt that people of all ages and both sexes were beheaded. To put it another way, an entire population seems to have been targeted, ranging from newborn babies right the way through to the elderly. At the same time, there are noticeable variations in the proportion of different age groups present. Adults, for example, outnumber younger people. Among the latter, the remains of infants and children are more numerous than those of adolescents. When it comes to the adults, most belong to the young adult (20-34) and middle-age (35-49) categories. It is also noticeable that there are more males than females, with the highest proportion of women falling within the young-adult age category.
A number of the dead display injuries in addition to the loss of their heads. Broken arm bones are particularly common. Such wounds are known as parry fractures, because they frequently occur when people are defending themselves. In addition to these, the men mainly received injuries to the upper body, such as broken ribs and clavicles, which could have been caused by face-to-face combat. Women and children were more likely to receive broken legs. Taken together, it seems clear that the group put up stiff resistance. As the fractured bones show no signs of healing, these people must have perished shortly afterwards. From this, it becomes possible to devise a scenario where a community – presumably that of Amato – came under attack. Some adolescents were perhaps able to escape, while young and middle-aged adults of both sexes engaged the attackers in desperate combat. In the aftermath, naked and, in some cases, wounded and bound captives were executed by decapitation.
In total, 72 headless individuals were discovered in the Amato compound. This represents the single largest group of decapitated bodies ever discovered in the central Andes. At the same time, it should be stressed that only part of the rectangular structure was excavated, making it possible that the true number of headless bodies is even higher.
Only a single adult male was found with his head still in place. This individual was aged 50+ and placed next to the remains of several dozen decapitated people. He was buried facing north and arranged in a seated position, while his entire body was wrapped in a plain mantle and secured with a long rope. A beautiful necklace made of small wing bones and shell beads was found around the man’s neck, while five young camelids and several pieces of worked Spondylus and shell beads lay nearby. These were presumably deposited as offerings to this man. At the same level as his feet we found a gourd and a deposition of peanut pods, while at head height lay another decapitated and naked body.
Who was this older adult male, and why did he receive such different treatment in death? It is notable that the base of his spine had fused both the lower vertebrae and the right pelvic bone, which may have made it impossible for him to walk. His teeth were also in a very poor state, but there was no sign of malnutrition, indicating that he was well cared for. Could this be the community patriarch, who was forced to watch as his people were executed at the site? Or was it rather that the dead had been sacrificed to honour this man? These are crucial questions that, at present, remain difficult to answer.
Whatever the truth, on present evidence the execution of these individuals marks the final act in the lifespan of Amato. The end of this settlement was, then, seemingly a frightening and gruesome moment. Perhaps some of its former inhabitants successfully fled, while others survived as hostages. But whoever was responsible for this massacre left soon afterwards, and it is natural to imagine them carrying the heads of their victims as trophies.
What can the killings at Amato tell us about the nature of life in the Acari valley more widely? At present it is impossible to say how exceptional death on such a scale was, but some general inferences can perhaps be drawn from nearby settlements. A total of eight relatively large centres existed in the middle and lower parts of the valley at around the time that Amato was occupied. The single most prominent feature of these sites is the presence of massive fortification walls. At some settlements these fully enclose the site, with those at Amato totalling about 850m in length. In other cases, as at Tambo Viejo and Monte Grande Alto, the defensive system combined walls on accessible approaches with natural barriers such as cliffs. At Tambo Viejo, the most substantial wall had a width of 6m, a height of at least 3.5m, and an approximate overall length of 1,750m.
Such walls were built using conical-shaped adobe blocks and cobblestones transported from the river. Securing or producing these materials would have been a time-consuming task, even before the labour of fashioning them into massive fortifications. In addition to the huge outer walls, some sites boasted a second inner wall, perhaps intended to trap any intruders between two lines of defences. Mounds were also raised alongside the walls, allowing sentries a better view of the approaches. Given the scale and visibility of the resulting fortifications, there can be little doubt that they were designed to have a deterrent effect. If that failed and an attack was mounted, the walls would also provide a practical advantage to those defending the settlement. All told, the energy and resources invested in such structures is most easily explained by the peoples of the Acari valley fearing for their own safety. This conclusion is supported by these fortified settlements being the earliest known on the entire Peruvian south coast.
Scarce resources and conflict
Borrowing the words of the late Robert L Carneiro, the Acari valley can be described as ‘backed by the mountains, fronted by the sea, and flanked on either side by desert as dry as any in the world.’ This is a place where the limited agricultural land is hemmed in by barren wastes. Carneiro argued that in such environmentally circumscribed regions, a natural consequence of population growth is that it will eventually push the carrying capacity of the land to its limits. Over time, the growing scarcity of resources such as food can then provoke conflict, with people choosing to attack their neighbours rather than go hungry themselves. Communities targeted in this way would have no choice other than to fight back, as there was nowhere else for them to go. After all, the productive parts of the valley were already settled, while there was no living to be eked out in the desert beyond.
To this already volatile mix can be added the specific circumstances of the Peruvian south coast. Every five to eight years, the region experiences a severe drought because of the El Niño phenomenon. If population pressures were already causing shortages in the Acari valley, it is easy to see how resource scarcity could have reached its climax with local peoples taking drastic action. This forces us to entertain the possibility that the perpetrators of the Amato slaughter were not attackers from distant lands, but neighbours from the same valley. If so, these are groups that in happier times had coexisted and possibly even intermarried. The archaeology of the Acari valley, then, not only illustrates how violent past societies could be, but also serves as a warning to the present about how settled groups deprived of options can turn upon themselves.
FURTHER READING D M Browne, H Silverman, and R Garcia (1993) 'A cache of 48 Nasca trophy heads from Cerro Carapo, Peru', Latin American Antiquity 15: 6-11. D A Proulx (2001) 'Ritual uses of trophy heads in ancient Nasca society' in Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru, E Benson and A Cook (eds), pp.119-136, Austin: University of Texas Press. L M Valdez (2009) 'Walled settlements, buffer zones, and human decapitation in the Acari Valley, Peru', Journal of Anthropological Research 65: 389-416. L M Valdez (2014) 'The earliest fortifications of the Peruvian South Coast', Ñawpa Pacha 34: 201-222.
IMAGES: courtesy of Lidio M Valdez unless otherwise stated.