Nasca Trophy Head Origins and Ancient DNA

Kathleen Forgey

in The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head

Published by University Press of Florida

Published in print May 2011 | ISBN: 9780813035567
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780813041766 | DOI:
Nasca Trophy Head Origins and Ancient DNA

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This chapter focuses on the origins of culturally modified human crania, or “trophy heads,” from the Early Nasca phases (ad 1–450) of the Nasca culture (ad 1–750) of the South Coast of Peru, where they are ubiquitously represented and displayed and their meaning is still debated. The two most prevalent explanations for trophy heads focus on ancestor worship and warfare during a time of emerging social, political, and religious complexity. The same questions are asked for the Neolithic Near East, Iron Age Eurasia, and ethnographic Oceania—who is represented by these heads? Are they ancestors of those who curated and interred them? Are they enemies from a separate ethnic group or population? This study is the first to explore the genetic relationships among individuals and groups from the Nazca and surrounding valleys and indicates that Early Nasca trophy heads derive from the Nazca Valley population, in other words, from “insiders.” This chapter demonstrates the utility of ancient DNA analysis in addressing the universal question of who is represented by heads that have been deformed, disembodied, decorated, or otherwise modified from diverse regions of the world. Furthermore, as this example shows, unexpected results may force us to modify our reconstructions of ancient social structures.

Keywords: Nasca culture; trophy heads; DNA analysis; ancestors; identity; insiders; Peru

Chapter.  7505 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Prehistoric Archaeology

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