Archaeologists are working at a pre-Columbian site in southern Ecuador called Salango. They’ve uncovered 11 sets of skeletal remains, including those of four infants. However, there’s something about the bones of two of the babies that immediately catches their attention. They’ve come across a burial practice never seen before, a phenomenon that’s both startling and gruesomely macabre.
The grave site that the researchers were excavating dates back more than 2,000 years and is from a culture known as Guangala. Using the evidence of their skillfully made ceramics, experts infer that the Guangala were an advanced society. Many of the people lived in coastal settlements like the one at Salango. Their economy was based on fishing, hunting, and trade. They also cultivated various crops including beans, corn, squash and cotton.
The researchers at Salango worked from 2014 to 2016 excavating burial mounds at the site. And it was the babies buried in two of those mounds which exhibited a previously unknown funerary custom. Each of the infants had been interred with a second adapted skull placed over their own. This gave their skulls the extraordinary appearance of wearing a helmet.
One of the babies with a skull helmet was around 18 months old at death and had the partial cranium of a child aged between four and 12 years as a helmet. The other infant was younger at between six and nine months and had the skull of a child aged from two to 12 years placed on it. Obviously, the question arises: what was the meaning of this outlandish burial ritual for the Guangala people?
One of the scientists involved in this unsettling discovery, Sara Juengst, told Forbes magazine in November 2019, “We’re still pretty shocked by the find. Not only is it unprecedented, there are still so many questions.” Theories about the thinking behind these burial practices include the idea that it may be connected with a belief in rebirth. Or, the skull helmets may have belonged to ancestors of the buried children. It’s a puzzling mystery that researchers have yet to solve.