Babies found with human skull helmets in ancient Ecuador

See Kristina Killgrove’s Forbes story on this new paper.

Two infants have been interred with bone helmets (the skull cap) of other juveniles at the ritual complex of Salango in Ecuador dated to 100BC. This is the first evidence globally for the manipulation of infant and child skulls in this way. The bones used for the helmets have evidence for being cut and shaped around the time of death and the positioning in the grave suggests that they were buried at the same time as the infants.

This research highlights the importance of the study of burial treatment and manipulation of infant and child bodies in past societies. The authors state that the human head (and skull) is important socially and culturally. In some societies human skulls are manipulated and used as symbols of relationships, status, power, and control. In South America infants and children have been found to be given complex mortuary ritual, which the authors argue contributes to protecting their “presocial and wild souls”. Interestingly, the infant heads were surrounded with stone ancestor figurines that they speculate indicates a “concern with protecting and empowering the heads”.

There is evidence for pathology on the bones of the two infants indicating they suffered from nutritional and/or infectious disease. The authors state that this finding is unusual for the area and time period. However, I think this is likely due to the previous lack of interest in the study of pathology in infants in the region and development of new methods for identifying disease in this age group. A case in point is the reanalyses of the infants and children from the Arica region in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile (Snoddy et al. 2018), which has shown a very high prevalence of nutritional disease in infant and children overlooked by previous specialists.


Snoddy AME, Halcrow SE, Buckley HR, Standen VG and Arriaza BT (2017), “Scurvy at the agricultural transition in the Atacama Desert (ca 3600–3200 BP): Nutritional stress at the maternal-foetal interface?”, International Journal of Paleopathology. Vol. 18, pp. 108 – 120.

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