A pair of infant skeletons were found wearing other children's skulls as helmets in a 2,000-year-old grave site
- Archaeologists recently uncovered skeletal remains from 11 people in two burial mounds in Ecuador.
- Each mound contained an infant buried wearing a helmet made from the skull of an older child.
- In a new study, researchers offer possible explanations for this manner of burial, which is unprecedented in the archaeological record.
- The infants and older children weren't sacrificed, the study says; they likely died from starvation and disease following a volcanic eruption.
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In a pair of Ecuadorian burial mounds, researchers recently found an archaeological puzzle: Two 2,100-year-old infant skulls appeared to be wearing the skulls of older kids.
"The infant dead were interred wearing a "helmet" made from crania of other children," the researchers wrote in a new study about the finding published in the journal Latin American Antiquity.
This is only known evidence of children's skulls being used as helmets in a burial ceremony anywhere in the archaeological record.
The two mounds at the grave site, located near the town of Salango on the central coast of Ecuador, contained remains from 11 individuals in total - infants, children, and adults alike. But only one skull in each mound was layered inside a larger skull.
The study authors aren't sure why the children were buried with this extra headgear, but said it could represent an attempt to protect the infants in the afterlife.
The two burial mounds, which date back to 100 BCE, were built by a group of people called Guangala who lived in the area starting around that time and remained there for the next few centuries.
A research team from the Universidad Técnica de Manabí excavated the site between 2014 and 2016. In one mound, archaeologists found the skull of an infant that died at 18 months old, which was buried wearing the skull of a child between 4 and 12 years old.
In the second mound, the team uncovered a more complete skeleton of an infant between 6 and 9 months old. That skull was encased in a skull helmet from a child between 2 and 12 years old.
In both cases, the skull helmets sat snugly on their owners' heads. That suggests to the archaeologists that the older children's skulls were likely still fleshy when they were converted into helmets, since the helmets wouldn't otherwise have fit so tightly and remained that way over thousands of years.
The team therefore thinks both the infants and the children who provided the helmets were buried at the same time.
Anthropologist Sara Juengst, lead author of the new study, told Business Insider that "what the relationship was, if any, between the primary burials and additional skulls is unclear currently."
Future DNA studies could help clarify that, Juengst added.
The infants' cause of death isn't clear either.
"We don't have any evidence that any of these children were sacrificed," Juengst said. "It seems likely they died of natural causes, rather than through sacrifice, because they have a lot of indicators of pretty extreme malnutrition and disease stress."
Child burials were ritually significant
Human heads were powerful symbols in South American ritual burials. Skulls could represent vanquished enemies, revered kin, and symbolic connections to ancestors and the spiritual realm - which is why they are sometimes referred to as "trophy heads," the authors wrote.
But while adult trophy heads are often found at grave sites, skulls belonging to children are far more rare.
"Adult skulls were regularly manipulated in different ways in the pre-hispanic Andes, but child skulls are less commonly involved," Juengst said.
The study authors offer few theories as to why the infants were interred this way.
Likely, Juengst said, the Guangala hoped this "mortuary headgear" would ensure that these infants had extra protection or extra links to ancestors. This extra protection may have been deemed necessary if the children had died following some sort of natural or social disaster.
Young people were also seen by many Andean groups, including the Guangala, as special in ritual circumstances. Children's souls, in particular, could benefit the living by positively affecting agricultural production, human fertility, and seasonal patterns of rain, Juengst and her colleagues wrote.
The Salango infants were buried following a volcanic eruption
The two skull-helmet-clad infants were buried just above a layer of volcanic ash, the researchers reported, which suggests an eruption occurred in nearby highlands prior to their deaths.
Juengst thinks the consequences of this volcanic eruption, such as a loss of crops or trouble finding fish and game, could have triggered disease outbreaks and starvation among the Guangala.
Once the children died from these causes, Juengst suggested, they were ritually buried with the unprecedented skull helmets.
"The treatment of the two infants was part of a larger, complex ritual response to environmental consequences of the eruption," she said.