Saturday, January 03, 2009

Study shows Nasca trophy heads home grown

Just like the Carthaginians, who in time of crisis sacrificed their own children, the Nasca turned to their own people for ritual sacrifice to ensure a plentiful harvest. I wonder why, though, the Nasca followed this practice instead of sacrificing war prisoners like the surrounding Incas? Perhaps, also like the Carthaginians, they preferred commerce and trade to conquest of their neighbors - or simply chose to focus their efforts on other aspects of social development rather than the maintenance of warriors that could triumph over their more warlike neighbors.

[Image - Nasca double-spouted jar depicting bird with trophy head, courtesy of the British Museum]

"In South America’s ancient Nasca culture, some local folk literally lost their heads so that everyone else might fill their bellies. The Nasca obtained trophy heads, human skulls modified in various ways and intended to spur successful farming, from their own people, not from foreigners slain in battles and raids as was practiced by the Inca and other prehistoric societies of that region, a new study finds.

Earlier analyses of paintings on Nasca pottery had suggested that members of this culture believed that the taking of trophy heads provided supernatural power needed for crop growth. Since the first Nasca trophy heads were discovered nearly 100 years ago, scientists have debated whether these items came from vanquished enemies or from local individuals thought to represent venerated Nasca ancestors...

...The finding comes from an analysis of the diet-related substances that had collected and remain in the teeth of unearthed Nasca trophy heads. Comparing these substances with those in the teeth of skeletons known to be from Nasca individuals shows that one set of trophy heads came from the Nasca themselves rather than from outsiders, Knudson’s team reports in a paper published online December 11 in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

Such data can’t yet pinpoint the geographic origins of the people whose heads became Nasca trophy heads, nor can the data rule out the possibility that the trophy heads were acquired in fights between local Nasca groups, remarks anthropologist William Isbell of Binghamton University in New York. “We can’t draw any final conclusions from this new study, but the results make it more likely that these severed heads were ancestors and not enemies,” Isbell says...

...Nasca sites of various ages have yielded more than 150 trophy heads, often found in caches of as many as 48 skulls, in graves as offerings to the dead and in public buildings. Most trophy skulls come from men, but some are from women and teenagers.

Knudson and her colleagues studied 16 trophy heads found at six Nasca sites by the late anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1925 and 1926. All the heads had been modified in the same way, with a hole drilled in the forehead for a carrying cord. Many Nasca trophy heads contain comparable forehead holes. Kroeber’s finds are kept at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Biochemical profiles of tiny amounts of tooth enamel taken from these trophy heads were compared to corresponding data for 13 intact Nasca skeletons that had already been excavated from either of three Nasca cemeteries. The scientists measured levels of key forms of strontium, oxygen and carbon in the ancient teeth, which were compared to baseline levels of these substances in rock formations, water, plants and small animals throughout the Nasca region.

Signature ratios of different forms of strontium, oxygen and carbon reflect where a person lived and what types of foods he or she consumed.

Overall, teeth from the trophy heads and from the comparison group displayed no substantial differences in the ratios of these substances. " - Science News
Apparently, an as yet unpublished mitochondrial DNA study by Kathleen Forgey of Indiana University Northwest in Gary points to a similar conclusion.