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5 December 2019
Prehistoric infants found with helmets made from skulls

Archaeologists excavating a pair of 2,100-year-old funerary mounds on the coast of central Ecuador revealed the skeletons of two infants with their heads encased in tight-fitting 'helmets' made from the skulls of older children - the only known evidence of juvenile skulls as mortuary headgear. One was around 18 months old at time of death, the other between 6 and 9 months old. Members of the Guangala culture interred the infants at a ritual complex around 100 BCE.
     The older infant's helmet originally belonged to a child aged 4 to 12 years old. Researchers found a small shell and a finger bone between the two skulls. The second infant's helmet was made from the skull of a child between 2 and 12 years old. No causes of death are known.
     Excavations conducted between 2014 and 2016 unearthed nine other individuals, many of whom were accompanied by small objects including figurines and shells. Other infants were buried with figurines placed near their heads.
     The human head was often a powerful symbol for many early South American cultures.
     Archaeologist believe the older children's skulls likely still had flesh when they were fitted over the infants' heads. They say juvenile skulls often do not hold together if they are simply bare bone. DNA and isotope analysis may clarify whether the infants and children were related.
     Ash found at the site suggests a nearby volcano was active and likely interfering with agriculture in the area, potentially subjecting the children to malnourishment and even starvation. All four sets of bones showed signs of anemia.

Edited from PhysOrg, Live Science (19 November 2019), Smithsonian Magazine (20 November 2019)

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