Two Bodies, Three Heads: Strange Nicaragua Grave May Signal Headhunter Culture

An unusual burial unearthed in El Rayo, Nicaragua drastically differs from the common method of burying the dead in cacao pots

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The skull still in its pot, which had been lying on the feet of one of the bodies.
The skull still in its pot, which had been lying on the feet of one of the bodies.Credit: Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf

EL RAYO, Nicaragua — The symphony of tropical birds, insects and water dripping off leaves all but drowned out the tense murmurs of the students excavating the enigmatic burial site. It was time to remove the skull in the bowl, a discovery that may support narratives of pre-Colombian headhunting.

El Rayo is an archaeological site on the Asese peninsula in Lake Cocibolca, aka Lake Nicaragua. Now it’s a banana plantation but it had been occupied in the pre-Columbian period. The question is, by whom. While excavating the site in 2021, archaeologists came across a strange gravesite. It had two bodies – and three skulls that don’t seem to belong to either body.

The archaeologists found the two bodies, or rather, two pairs of legs, lying perpendicular to one another. One is complete, the archaeologists surmise, though its excavation could not be completed by the end of the field season. That one was lying stretched out on its back.

The tibias of the person laid down on its backCredit: Andrew Califf

The other one was prone, on its belly, but its appears to consist only of the person’s bottom half. Its pelvis was about where the first body’s knees were; but the rest of it seems to be missing, based on cursory examination of the ground where it would have been.

Based on the unfused state of its knee bones, that face-down half-person seems to have been a teenager. Though missing its top half, torso and head, as said, it has one skull lying in a bowl on its feet; fragments of another skull with pottery sherds on its knees; and an almost-complete skull lying on its pelvis in another fragmentary ceramic vessel. The archaeologists suspect that all three of the skulls had been placed in bowls.

Preliminary analysis of the teeth in the skull still lying in its bowl suggests the person was older than 25.

“It’s way up there among the most complex burials ever excavated in Nicaragua,” said Geoffrey McCafferty, the lead excavator. “We have seen at least one other occasion of a cranium inside of a pot, but to find three of those in a line on top of the extended burial is definitely something unusual.”

The tibias of one of the bodies and the skull placed over its pelvisCredit: Andrew Califf

The potentially complete body’s legs measured 96 centimeters from feet to pelvis, quite tall by the standards of pre-Columbian Nicaraguans, the archaeologists say.

Looking for the missing torso and head of the face-down body, the archaeologists dug test pits on the other side of the tall individual, but found nothing, at least so far. McCafferty suggests two options: the grave for the larger person dug through and disturbed the prior grave; or the large individual was buried with this half-body as a grave good.

“Was it a young kid who was captured during war or from another group and brought and killed? I don’t know. There are so many possibilities. But I think it just adds up to the social complexities of these groups,” said Ruth Martinez, a Nicaraguan archaeologist and anthropologist. “Their complexity has been diminished to either being savages or being nobles and having nothing to add to Nicaraguan history.”

Burial in a cacao pot

Fundamental questions remain about the origins of today’s Nicaraguans, and some effort is being invested in understanding their predecessors in the country. The origin of pre-Columbian Nicaraguans is debated: theoretically they may have come down from Mesoamerica, up from the Chibchan cultures in Colombia, or may have been a completely distinct cultural group.

The conquistadors obliterated indigenous documentation (ethnographic work suggests that the cachet associated with Spanish heritage is still causing a degradation of the indigenous identity).

Ancient burials of people lying straight have been found in Nicaragua, but the vast majority of burials of pre-Columbians are bones in, outside, beside, underneath, or on top of burial urns.

What this inconsistency might mean, if anything, has been baffling archaeologists for years, especially since the funerary urns – in other archaeological contexts – seem to also just be mundane cooking vessels for cacao mixtures. It was the equivalent of “burying grandma in her crockpot,” as one excavator remarked.

From El Rayo, they could see Mombacho Volcano, by Lake CocibolcaCredit: Google Maps
The view of Mombacho Volcano from El Rayo. It last erupted in 1570Credit: Andrew Califf

It begs adding that burials in pots was not confined to ancient central America. Throughout the Levant and even in ancient Rome, dead people underwent “secondary burial” – after their body decayed under whatever circumstance, their bones were interred for eternity in clay vessels, sometimes cooking pots.

Pre-Columbian Nicaraguan cemeteries are usually just large caches of these burial urns. Something like what was found in El Rayo is uncharacteristic for the region, according to Martinez.

Fewer extended burials have been found face down. The majority were found on nearby Ometepe Island, which also however has ancient burials in cacao pots. There is no consistency in grave goods and a lack of ethnographic data makes it impossible at this stage for archaeologists to provide a definitive picture of the mysterious group’s burial practices and ceremonies.

Trophy heads and maybe a tomahawk

The remains were largely excavated by field school students, and the squared meter first seemed to be a nondescript trash pit. By the time the larger individual was reached by a mess of extensions, it was near the end of the field season and the large skeleton couldn’t be fully excavated despite the mad rush.

The other remains haven’t been fully analyzed and currently the archaeological team can only speculate on the meaning of the bodies’ orientation. Their position seems to accord to the “compass rose” – one lying north-south and the other buried east-west.

Some of the archaeologists surmise the facedown posture may be related to superstition, including fears of the supernatural, for instance that the dead could arise anew. However, the Chibchan cosmic house traditionally mirrors Earth, and one speculation suggests the younger individual was positioned facedown to enter the afterlife.

Both bodies were lying on a bed of pottery sherds. Nearby the two bodies and collection of skulls was a 10-centimeter-long red stone blade, potentially from a tomahawk, but the archaeologists cannot be sure it was associated with either body. But they didn’t find anything else of note, they say.

The chert blade, which is red under the dirt of ages, and may have come from a tomahawkCredit: Andrew Califf

One big question hanging over the grave is whether the individuals are related, to each other, and/or to the people whose potted skulls lie above the extended bodies. These answers could substantiate theories of headhunters or illustrate a dynamic ethnic and cultural change represented by two distinct use periods for the cemetery.

“One of the research potentials here is going to be to see if the decapitated skulls are from a different tribe, a different ethnic group, a different biological population,” explained McCafferty. “The relationship between the extended burial and the crania in the pots holds a lot of potential for talking about warfare or talking about head hunting traditions.”

“Trophy heads” have been found with other burials, some with chert blades in their jaws, and these offer rare evidence for head hunting culture in Nicaragua, McCafferty says. Very little is known about conflicts in Pacific pre-Columbian Nicaragua.

Seen from El Rayo: the Concepcion Volcano on Lake Nicaragua. it is more or less in a constant state of eruptionCredit: Andrew Califf

One Nicaraguan archaeologist, Leonardo Lechado Rios, recently claimed the lack of stone weapons suggests there were very few warfare events. This theory was presented during the Third Archaeology Conference at the Nicaraguan National Palace.

This burial reminds McCafferty of a rare piece of Spanish documentation on the Pacific Nicaraguans from the early 1500s. Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernandez Oviedo y Valdez, best known simply as Oviedo, accounts being told during a feast with the indigenous people, that if decapitated in battle, stuffing jocote leaves and bark in the neck and sewing the head back on — if done quickly enough — would bring the individual back to life. The Spaniard thought this nonsense, but supposedly the chief had leaves sticking out of his neck.

The stratigraphy doesn’t clearly depict whether or not the larger individual was buried later, disturbing the younger individual’s grave. If this is the case, it would support McCafferty’s speculation about changes in interactions in the area. “In my opinion, there’s an ethnic change, or at least an ethnogenesis or development of a new ethnicity that is supposedly related to Mesoamerican groups coming from Mexico,” he says, based on his past research. “It’s further evidence that there were changes, further evidence of what those cultural manifestations were.”

The excavation team hopes future dating efforts will parse out exactly how many burial events occurred at this site. It’s difficult to discern if it’s one extremely ceremonially complex burial or two, three or four events all within a meter of earth – all were placed in rather shallow graves.

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