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Bodies of evidence : human decapitation during the early intermediate period in the Acarí Valley, south coast, Peru Smith, Craig Preston


The Nasca, who occupied parts of the Peruvian south coast during the Early Intermediate Period (EIP; ca. A.D. 1-750), are famous for their immense ground drawings, elaborate textiles, and attractive polychrome pottery. They are also well-known for their practice of collecting and modifying human heads. Caches of these well-preserved, and often mummified, "trophy" heads have been found by archaeologists working in the valleys of the Rio Grande de Nazca drainage, once the heartland of Nasca society. Based on the contexts in which they are found, as well as their depiction in the iconography of the Nasca and earlier Paracas culture (ca. 800 B.C. - A.D. 1), the heads have come to be seen as important ideological symbols, which were likely incorporated in rituals centered on themes of water, fertility, and regeneration. While the interpretation of the ritual purpose of Nasca "trophy" heads is widely accepted, the nature and context in which the heads were obtained is the subject of much debate. Until recently, however, there has been a dearth of skeletal evidence with which to test the competing hypotheses about the source of Nasca trophy heads. During the 2005 and 2006 field seasons of the Acari Valley Archaeological Project, investigators found the remains of 54 decapitated individuals at the site of Amato, just 80 km south of the Nasca ceremonial center of Cahuachi. Demographic analysis of the skeletons revealed that both sexes and all age groups are represented. Not only does this discovery represent the largest-known association of its kind in the south coast, but the presence of such a large sampling of the population, including all ages and sexes, is unprecedented in the Andes. Based on the osteological analysis of the individuals from Amato, and through a parsimonious reconstruction of the events that led to their death and decapitation, I present a case for the non-ritual nature of head taking in the south coast during the early EIP. I propose that decapitation likely took place in the context of raiding, conducted primarily for economic reasons. Furthermore, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the raiding group was from the Southern Nasca Region. These conclusions are significant not only for our understanding of the nature of warfare and head taking during the Early Intermediate Period on the south coast, but they also inform broader questions about inter- and intra-valley interaction and culture change in this part of the preHispanic Andes.

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