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Unearthing Nazca Culture’s Trophy Heads as War Trophies (100 BC to 800 AD, Peru)

The Nazca culture of Peru is perhaps most well-known for the enigmatic Nazca Lines , hundreds of lines and stylized images built into the Peruvian coastal plain. Yet, there is more to this ancient South American civilisation than the mysterious geoglyphs. For instance, the Nazca culture is known to have engaged in the practise of headhunting. This is evident in the so-called ‘trophy heads’. Although these ‘trophy heads’ were first attested in the iconography of Nazca pottery, it has been substantiated by the discovery of at least 100 heads since the early 20 th century.

Based on analyses of these heads, it has been suggested that the head was first removed from the body by slicing through the neck and separating the cervical vertebrae with a sharp obsidian knife. Then, the base of the skull was broken away, and the soft tissue, including the tongue, muscles and throat structure were discarded. Through this opening, the brain and its supporting membranes were removed. The resulting cavity was often stuffed with cloth, and sometimes with vegetable matter. A small hole would then be punched or drilled into the centre of the forehead so that a rope could be threaded through. This rope would have been secured inside the head by a wooden toggle or a large knot, and is believed to have been used to hang the heads from a building or even to tie them around one’s waist. Finally, the lips were pinned shut using one or two long spines from the local huarango tree.

The term ‘trophy head’, first coined by the archaeologist Max Uhle, suggests that the heads were collected as trophies of war. Among proponents of this theory, however, there is a debate on the way the Nazca carried out their wars. Some scholars have suggested that the Nazca practised a form of ritual warfare, in which the main goal was to capture prisoners for decapitation, rather than for territorial expansion. Other scholars, however, have argued that the Nazca engaged in traditional warfare for control of land and other valuable resources, and that the collection of heads took place only after battle.

Regardless of the way the heads were obtained, scholars on both sides agree that the reason for collecting the heads and the way they were subsequently used were ritualistic in nature. The Nasca’s use of decapitated heads has been compared to that of the Jivaro (these are the Indians of eastern Peru and Ecuador, most famous perhaps for shrinking the decapitated heads of their victims), in which these prized objects were used in a variety of rituals before ceremonial entombment.  In addition, decorations on Nazca pottery, show decapitated heads impaled on poles, hung from banners, carried around by warriors, and collected and displayed in groups. Moreover, the heads were buried next to cemeteries, thus suggesting their use in ritualistic activities that were linked to the dead.