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In Images: The Mutilated Skeletons of Lapa do Santo


drone shot of lapa do santo

(Image credit: Artur Magalhaes)

Archaeologists excavating at a large cave in Brazil have unearthed evidence that ancient people mutilated the bodies of their dead.The site, called Lapa do Santo, had been known for many years, but no one had looked closely at the funeral practices implied by the burials of human skeletons.

Exhuming the past

exhuming a burial at lapa do santo

(Image credit: Mauricio de Paiva)

Here, one of the researchers, Rodrigo Elias, exhumes a skeleton.

Painted red

red-painted cranium at Lapa do Santo

(Image credit: Mauricio de Paiva)

Though some of the earlier burials were of complete skeletons, the bones at the site showed signs of mutilation after death starting around 9,600 years ago. Here, a cranium found in burial pit 9 was painted red.

Array of changes

evidence of skeletal alteration at lapa do santo

(Image credit: Antiquity)

The site had remains from dozens of burial pits, and many showed extensive modification after death. Human bones were cut up and stuffed into a skull, the teeth were deliberately removed from the skull, bodies were burnt and defleshed, and there was some evidence of cannibalism.

Brushing away the dust

burial 39 at Lapa Do Santo

(Image credit: Andre Strauss)

Here, an archaeologist uses a tool to gently exhume the ancient skeletons found at the site.

Ancient death

burial 39 at lapa do santo

(Image credit: Andre Strauss)

A skull from burial 39 at Lapa do Santo lies in wait.

Lying down

burial 37 at lapa do santo

(Image credit: Andre Strauss)

Another burial, this time of a more complete skeleton, unearthed in pit 37.

Another burial

burial 35 at lapa do santo

(Image credit: Andre Strauss)

More bones were found in burial pit 35.


burials 34 and 37 at Lapa do Santo

(Image credit: Andre Strauss)

The ancient Americans cut up the bodies, drilled out teeth, and placed bone fragments inside the skull. Here, skeletons in one of the burial pits.

Tooth removal

tooth removal from a skull lapa do santo

(Image credit: Mauricio de Paiva)

At burial 32 at Lapa do Santo, a skull shows evidence of tooth removal.

Skull pieces

burial 32 at site lapa do santo

(Image credit: Mauricio de Paiva)

At burial 32, a skull shows evidence of secondary manipulation, in particular, tooth removal.

Tia Ghose
Tia has interned at Science News,, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and has written for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Scientific American, and ScienceNow. She has a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California Santa Cruz.