It’s 1999 and locals in the northwestern Mexican community of Onavas are on the verge of a mind-bending discovery. In the earth beneath their feet, strange things have been laying in obscurity for centuries. But as they undertake construction works, laborers finally bring these otherworldly artifacts to the surface.
The Onavas residents had initially been digging out a channel for irrigation purposes, but their work inadvertently led them to excavate an old burial ground. Naturally, this place was home to plenty of human remains buried beneath the surface. But the specific nature of some of the skulls there was curious, to say the least.
You see, these weren’t just regular human skulls. A number of them were shaped rather oddly, with long, pointed ends instead of the rounded tops you’d normally expect to see. In addition to that, the teeth of some of the skulls were themselves bizarre. To put it plainly, these skulls looked alien.
The discovery of a centuries-old cemetery in itself wouldn’t necessarily have been all too surprising. After all, the Mexican state of Sonora in which Onavas is located has a long history of human habitation. In fact, there are indications that people lived in the area as far back as 10,000 years ago or more.
The earliest people living in Sonora would have been nomads, gathering or hunting for their food. Their surroundings at this time would have been much more suitable for such a lifestyle, as the environment then wasn’t as harsh. That’s to say, there was more plant life growing across the region.
Agricultural practices, however, eventually emerged in the area of Sonora. This is thought to have first occurred at some point between 400 B.C. and 200 A.D. Initially, this would have happened in the vicinity of rivers, and it changed the nature of the people in the area. More complex societies would have followed, as evidenced, perhaps, by the contemporary discoveries of ceramics dating back to 750 A.D.
From about 1100 A.D. to 1350 A.D. the region’s population developed into a series of small communities. Socially speaking, these were rather sophisticated, linked together by trading routes. However, over the next century or so, the area was subjected to climate change. It became drier, and so the communities there were forced to simplify once more.
During the 16th century, colonizers from Spain arrived in the Americas, conquering as they explored. It’s not entirely clear when the Spaniards managed to start controlling the area we know today as Sonora. You see, unlike other parts of the continent, Sonora at that time had no centralized societal structure to take over.
Moreover, peoples native to Sonora were effective in repelling the Spaniards, for a time at least. We do know that in the beginning of 17th century, however, Europeans managed to gain a permanent foothold and began to set up missions there. From that point on, Jesuit clergymen set about changing the face of the area.
Throughout the 18th century, great numbers of Spanish people traveled from Europe to set up a life in Sonora. Furthermore, the discovery of precious minerals in the region only served to hasten and increase the colonization process. In turn, mining activities led to native peoples being forced away from their rightful lands.
The colonial period in Sonora’s history eventually came to an end in the early 19th century. In 1810 the Mexican War of Independence began; it was a conflict which was to span more than a decade, only finishing in 1821. At that point, Sonora – though it hadn’t actually played a significant part in the hostilities – found itself as a region within independent Mexico.
Nowadays, Senora is a region encompassing around 71,400 square miles of land in the northwest of Mexico. As such, it’s one of the country’s biggest states, second only to Chihuahua. Senora actually shares a border with Chihuahua, as well as the Mexican states of Baja California Norte and Sinaloa. Its northern edges border Arizona and New Mexico in the United States.
The vast majority of Sonora experiences extremely dry conditions. In fact, about 90 percent of the territory is said to be desert. Yet agriculture is nonetheless essential to the state’s economy. As such, irrigation projects to aid in agricultural production are essential. Indeed, that’s precisely what led to the discovery of the burial grounds in Onavas in 1999.
The lands of Sonora have, of course, been of historical interest in contemporary times. After all, the region has a long and fascinating past which stretches back many millennia. However, there are still major gaps in the story, and so any new discoveries made there are an exciting prospect indeed.
One can only imagine, then, how enthusiastic experts in the field might have been in 1999. A discovery of a cemetery dating back 1,000 years would surely have been an exciting prospect in its own right for historians. But this particular site in Onavas was home to some truly strange remains.
This burial place has come to be known, simply, as El Cementerio. When it was eventually excavated by archaeologists, it was found to house 25 skeletal remains. Nothing too out of the ordinary, then, except for the fact that 13 of these were unlike anything you’d expect to see in a healthy human.
Many of the skeletons that were uncovered in the cemetery were adorned in jewelry. Examples of such ornaments were bracelets, necklaces and earrings. Some of these artifacts were made from seashells or the shells of snails. One of the skeletons, however, was found with the shell of a turtle resting over it.
As we know, the El Cementerio burial site was first stumbled upon back in 1999. But it wasn’t for many more years that the place was to be appropriately analyzed by experts. By 2012, though, a project with ties to Arizona State University was underway to try to get some answers.
It might have been initially jarring for anybody investigating the site, given what lay beneath the earth. Human remains would likely be harrowing things to uncover at the best of times, but these ones were utterly bizarre. Some of the skulls, in fact, looked like they were props from the Alien movie franchise.
Of the 25 remains excavated at El Cementerio, about half had skulls which were totally misshapen. Additionally, five had teeth which were far from ordinary. But these oddly shaped remains hadn’t come from some previously undiscovered extraterrestrial species. They were human; however, it appears that they had been purposely deformed.
Throughout human history, numerous ethnic groups have attempted to alter the shape of their children’s heads. You see, for the first year of a baby’s life, their skulls are rather pliable. As such, a variety of techniques might be utilized to reshape the head, like binding it in bandages or positioning a board against it.
The ability to reshape a young person’s skull is predominantly down to our species’ experience of evolution. Human beings are said to have bigger brains than what might be expected for a creature with our dimensions. The same could be said for some of our primate cousins, such as the chimpanzee.
However, the human brain doesn’t enter the world fully sized. Rather, it grows quite dramatically across the early stages of a child’s life. In fact, it can develop so quickly that the young person’s bones can’t keep up. As such, the plates of a baby’s skull aren’t fixed together during its first year.
The fact that a baby’s skull isn’t initially solid means that the brain can expand without being inhibited. Only after a year does the skull become rigid. All of this means that during those first 12 months, the skull is actually malleable. And whatever shape it’s forced into at that time will stick when the skull hardens.
Speaking to the BBC in 2014, anthropologist Christoph Zollikofer from Switzerland’s University of Zurich elaborated. “Chimp and great ape skulls in general are equally soft after birth and equally prone to deformation,” he said. “However, great apes do not have the cognitive and techno-cultural abilities to [modify their infants’ skulls].”
The earliest potential piece of evidence we have for skull modification actually comes from the remains of another species of human. There are examples of 45,000-year-old Neanderthal heads being misshapen, but this might have occurred after the individual had died. In China, a possible example of a 20,000-year-old skull being altered has also been recorded, but the authenticity of this is somewhat questionable.
In the pre-colonized Americas, meanwhile, artificial cranial deformation – as the practice of reshaping skulls is known – was utilized by various native tribes and peoples. For some, a longer, more pointed skull could represent higher status within society. Others, meanwhile, saw flat heads as being in some way representative of liberty.
Some peoples saw reshaped skulls as being beautiful, while others even believed that it helped to increase intellect. Michael Obladen from Germany’s Charité University Medicine Berlin spoke to BBC about the cultural significance of artificial cranial deformation. In his words, “Head-shaping seems to be a human cultural achievement rooting in the belief in an ‘unfinished self’: the belief that something can and must be improved in the newborn baby.”
Anthropologists and historians have long known of cases of artificial cranial deformation having occurred across Central America. However, the fact that the skulls in Sonora’s El Cementerio seem to have been subjected to the practice is a surprise. You see, no evidence had previously existed of the process being undertaken that far north.
As we’ve seen, 13 of the 25 remains had misshapen skulls and five had unusual sets of teeth. In essence, these had been altered in shape, too, just like the skulls. Dental mutilation, however, would have been achieved by filing down or grating the teeth into the desired unnatural shape.
It’s possible that the teeth may have been altered as a sort of ritual related to age. You see, the five skulls with mutilated teeth had belonged to individuals aged 12 or older. As such, we might extrapolate that the practice of dental mutilation was undertaken in recognition of a child reaching adolescence.
Cristina Garcia Moreno was one of the archaeologists who was working on the El Cementerio excavation project. Speaking to website LiveScience in 2012, she explained the general significance of the practice of bodily modification to certain cultures. However, she admitted that she didn’t yet know the specific motivations for why the bodies at El Cementerio had been altered in this way.
As Garcia Moreno told the website, “Cranial deformation has been used by different societies in the world as a ritual practice. Or for distinction of status within a group or to distinguish between social groups. The reason why these individuals at El Cementerio deformed their skulls is still unknown.”
Garcia Moreno went on, “The most common comment I’ve read from people that see the pictures of cranial deformation has been that they think that those people were ‘aliens.’ I could say that some say that as a joke, but the interesting thing is that some do think so. Obviously we are talking about human beings, not of aliens.”
Reportedly, 17 of the 25 human remains discovered at El Cementerio had belonged to children. These kids seemingly hadn’t perished from disease or illness, so a disturbing explanation for their deaths has emerged. That is, perhaps the act of artificially reshaping their heads is actually what ended up killing them.
The implications of this discovery at El Cementerio could be vast for historians and anthropologists. You see, peoples within the cultural sphere of Mesoamerica are known to have undertaken artificial cranial deformation. So, the fact that it occurred in Sonora – a culturally different region – suggests that Mesoamerican influence was more far-reaching than previously thought.
The discovery of the skeletons has brought to the surface questions that have not yet been answered. For instance, some of the remains were adorned in jewelry, but others were not. There’s no obvious reason why this was the case. Were some of the people buried considered more important than others?
Another mystery which surrounds the age-old remains found at the burial site relates to their gender. You see, of the 25 skeletons laid to rest there, only a single one had come from a female. The experts have yet to come to a satisfying conclusion about why this might have been the case.
Hopefully, however, continued research on the matter will help to shed light on some of the questions posed by the discovery. Indeed, certain things have already been revealed by the work of the experts. For example, one of the skeletons has been dated back to the specific year of 943 A.D.
According to LiveScience, the researchers hope to discover more human remains in the earth. This, it’s hoped, would help to paint a clearer picture of the burial traditions of the peoples of pre-colonial Sonora. But already, it seems, the history books are going to have to be in some way altered thanks to the works that have taken place at Onavas.