Category Archives: SOUTH AMERICA

Waves Over Centuries Has Carved this Marble Cave into Stunning Shapes and Swirling Patterns

Waves Over Centuries Has Carved this Marble Cave into Stunning Shapes and Swirling Patterns

The Cuevas de Mármol is situated on a strong marble island on the edge of the General Correra Lake on the Patagonian Andes, an outlying glacial lake that stretches across the border between Chile and Argentina.

Dubbed as the most beautiful cave network in the world, Cuevas de Marmol (Marble Caves) is a 6,000-year-old sculpture hewn by the crashing waves of Lake General Carrera of Patagonia in Southern Chile.

Also called the Marble Cathedral, the intricate caverns are part of a peninsula made of solid marble surrounded by the glacial Lake General Carrera that spans the Chile-Argentina border.

The swirling pattern on the cave interiors is a reflection of the lake’s azure waters, which change depending on the water levels dictated by weather and season.

Visitors are enamored by the Marble Cave’s unique ability to constantly change its appearance.

In early spring, the shallow waters are turquoise and create a crystalline shimmer against the caves’ swirling walls. Come summer, the water levels increase and create a deep blue hue which gives the cave a unique unearthly shade.

The water levels are significantly affected by the freezing and melting of the surrounding glaciers. It’s also from these glaciers where the lake takes the fine silt sediments that rest on the lake bed.

To get to the caves, one must embark on a long and difficult journey starting from a flight to the Chilean capital of Santiago. Visitors must then travel 800 miles on major highways to the next big city Coyhaique, followed by a 200-mile drive on rough dirt roads towards the lake.

Located far from any road, the caves are accessible only by boat. Thirty-minute tours are operated by a local company, weather and water conditions permitting.

The best time of the year to visit the Marble Caves is roughly between September and February when the ice melts feeding the lake and the color of the water is particularly enchanting turquoise.

In terms of hours, the best time to take a boat tour is early morning to catch the right lighting for great pictures.

Finally, a boat is needed to access the caves. But though the journey is long and challenging, many agree the enchanting beauty of the caves is definitely worth the effort.

Native American 14th-century’ sweat lodge’ discovered in Mexico City

Native American 14th-century’ sweat lodge’ discovered in Mexico City

Archaeologists in Mexico City’s ancient La Merced district have unearthed a pre-Hispanic mesoamerican sauna from the 14th century.

The BBC reports that several primary sections of the ancient sweat lodge still exist remarkably intact.

The Mesoamericans of the period built these ancestral saunas, known as temazcals, for medicinal, spiritual, and fertility purposes and rituals. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (NIAH) said the find clarified a slew of historical questions.

Unearthing the pre-Hispanic site helped experts locate Temazcaltitlán — one of the very first settled areas of the ancient city of Tenochtitlán. The site was primarily used for purification ceremonies for the ill, for warriors after a battle, and for ensuring successful childbirth.

A foundation house and a colonial tannery were found at the site, as well.

Alongside practical purification purposes, these saunas served as a place to recover after the battle, prepare for childbirth, and worship goddesses of lust, vice, land, water, and more.

Researchers believe Mexica nobles — the Mexica were the indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who comprised the Aztec Empire between 1428 and 1521 — lived in the former between 1521 and 1620, while the tannery is currently dated to between 1720 and 1820.

For excavation lead Víctor Esperón Calleja, these discoveries have shed enormous light on the region’s history and culture.

“Tenochtitlán was divided into four parts and we are in the part called Teopan in a neighborhood called Temazcaltitlán where the sweat lodges were,” he said. “The [house and tannery] findings suggest that in the 16th century this area was more populated than we initially thought.”

The foundations of a house and a tannery were discovered at the site, as well. Experts believe a noble family lived in the home after Hernán Cortés conquered the city of Tenochtitlán from Moctezuma II in 1521.

The house, built after the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés took the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán and defeated Moctezuma II in 1521, was decorated with red motifs on the interior walls.

Researchers believe its owners were a noble and respected family. Tenochtitlán was, after all, a major metropolis home to a wide stratum of social and economic classes in Aztec society.

“The site is part of a protected area and that is why Archaeological Rescue Office of the INAH has intervened,” said Calleja in reference to the INAH taking the lead on this discovery.

Many of the sauna’s main components, such as the pits themselves, have remained intact for centuries.

In terms of the temazcal’s size, INAH confirmed the foundation is 16.4 feet long and 9.7 feet wide. A bathtub and a bench were built into its walls, the discovery of which lends credence to another known historical record.

An Aztec record says that a Mexica noblewoman named Quetzalmoyahuatzin regularly bathed in a temazcal before giving birth. Now that a sweat lodge like the one described in this record has actually been discovered, that written document is largely verified as fact.

Researchers believe the whole neighborhood was one centered on worship, and not just of Tlazolteotl — the Aztec deity dedicated to purification, steam baths, lust, and vice.

Lead excavator on the project Víctor Esperón Calleja explained that the Archaeological Rescue Office of the INAH took over because the site is located in a historically protected area.

Other deities such as Ixcuina, the goddess of labor, Ayopechtli, the goddess of birth itself, and goddesses who represented land or water — such as Coatlicue, Toci, Chalchiuhtlicue, and Mayahuel — were honored there, too.

As it stands, there may be further revelations stemming from this discovery that’ll contextualize this history even more.

The Mystery of the Giant Crystals: How the 36-foot Geode of Pulpí Formed

The Mystery of the Giant Crystals: How the 36-foot Geode of Pulpí Formed

In an abandoned mine in southern Spain, there is a room of pure crystal. 

This is the geode of Pulpí

You have to go to a deep tunnel, get into a ladder in the rocks, and squeeze across a jagged gypsum crystal tube that is barely wide enough for a person. If you make it that far, you’ll be standing inside the world’s largest geode: the Pulpí Geode, a 390-cubic-foot (11 cubic meters) cavity about the size of a cement mixer drum, studded with crystals as clear as ice and sharp as spears on every surface.

While you may have never stood inside a geode, you’ve probably held, or at least seen, one before.

A researcher stands inside the crystal-filled cave known as the Pulpí Geode

“Many people have little geodes in their home,” Juan Manuel García-Ruiz, a geologist at the Spanish National Research Council and co-author of a new paper on the history of the Pulpí Geode, told BBC. “It’s normally defined as an egg-shaped cavity inside a rock, lined with crystals.”

Those crystals can form after water seeps through tiny pores in a rock’s surface, ferrying even tinier minerals into the hollow interior. Depending on the size of the rock cavity, crystals can continue growing for thousands or millions of years, creating caches of amethyst, quartz and many other shiny minerals. 

The crystal columns at Pulpí are made of gypsum — the product of water, calcium sulfate, and lots and lots of time — but not much else has been revealed about them since the geode’s unexpected discovery in 2000.

In a study published in the journal Geology, García-Ruiz and his colleagues attempted to shed some new light on the mysterious cave by narrowing down how and when the geode formed.

García-Ruiz is no stranger to giant crystals. In 2007, he published a study on Mexico’s fantastical Cave of Crystals, a basketball-court-size cavern of gypsum beams as big as telephone poles buried 1,000 feet (300 m) below the town of Naica. Uncovering the history of that “Sistine Chapel of crystals,” as García-Ruiz called it, was made easier by the fact that the crystals were still growing in the mine’s humid bowels. 

At Pulpí, however, the mine was completely dry, and the geode’s crystals had not grown in tens of thousands of years. On top of that, the geode’s gypsum spikes are incredibly pure — so translucent that “you can see your hand through them,” García-Ruiz said.

This means they do not contain enough uranium isotopes to perform radiometric dating, a standard method of analyzing how different versions of elements radioactively decay to date very old rocks. 

“We had no idea what happened,” García-Ruiz said. “So, we were required to make a cartography of the entire mine to understand its very complicated geology.”

The researchers analyzed and radiometrically dated rock samples around the mine for seven years to figure out how the area had changed since its formation hundreds of millions of years ago. The team’s driving question: Where did the calcium sulfate in the Pulpí Geode come from?

Ultimately, the researchers narrowed down the geode’s formation to a window of about 2 million years (not bad for the 4.5-billion-year-old calendar of geologic time). The crystals must be at least 60,000 years old, the team found because that was the youngest age of a bit of carbonate crust growing on one of the largest crystals in the geode. Since the crust is on the outside of a crystal, the crystal below must be even older, García-Ruiz explained.

Meanwhile, the composition of other minerals in the mine suggests that calcium sulfate was not introduced to the area until after an event called the Messinian Salinity Crisis — the near-total emptying of the Mediterranean Sea that is believed to have occurred about 5.5 million years ago. 

Based on the size of the gypsum crystals, it’s likely they started forming less than 2 million years ago, through a very slow-growing process called Ostwald ripening, in which large crystals form through the dissolution of smaller ones, García-Ruiz said. For an everyday example of this process, peer into your freezer.

When ice cream ages past its prime, small ice crystals begin to break away from the rest of the treat. As more time passes, those small crystals lose their shape and recombine into larger crystals, giving the old ice cream a distinctly gritty texture. 

The Pulpí Geode may not be as tasty as ice cream, but merely knowing that magical places like this exist comes with its own sweet satisfaction.

Thanks in part to the research team’s mapping efforts, tourists are now allowed to visit the Pulpí Geode, and García-Ruiz certainly wouldn’t blame you for doing so. Squeezing past the jagged gypsum gateway and into the geode’s cavity for the first time several years ago, García-Ruiz recalled one feeling: “euphoria.”

The first dinosaur remains from the Cretaceous of Ecuador

A Titanosaur in Ecuador? New Dinosaur Discovered!

Ecuador has found the fossils of a previously unknown titanosaurus. The medium to small-sized dinosaur lived 85 million years ago, during the Upper Cretaceous period.

The remains have been found in the province of Loja at the southern end of the country. It is the first time in the history of dinosaur fossils and the northernmost example of its sauropod subfamily to date have been found.

The fossils of the titanosaur, called Yamanasaurus lojaensis, are the first of their kind and were discovered by a farmer in rocks of the Río Playas Formation in the Yamana parish. According to a report in El Universo , the fossils were passed along until they eventually became state property.

In August 2018, Argentinian paleontologist Sebastián Apesteguía of the University Maimónides was called in by professors John Soto, José Tamay, and Galo Guamán at the Technical University of Loja (UTPL) to give a conference and provide an expert’s opinion on the fossils.

Apesteguía told El Universo that he was asked to verify if the fossils came from a dinosaur and if he could tell the professors anything about the long -extinct creature . He could and did.

“It was a shock” Apesteguía said “the material they showed me was incredible because it is clearly the last two sacral vertebrae of a titanosaur.

Later my colleague Pablo Gallina and I were able to find out exactly what kind of titanosaur, but at that moment there was no doubt in my mind that it was a medium to small sized dinosaur.”

A paper on the discovery in Cretaceous Research states that altogether the Yamanasaurus lojaensis fossils include “a partial sacrum, a partial mid-caudal vertebra, and several associated limb bones” and the “Morphology, size, and age suggest that Yamanasaurus is closely related to Neuquensaurus, being the northernmost known by far.”

Image demonstrating the recently identified titanosaur’s size in comparison to a female adult and the fossils that were found (in red).

Technical processes were then carried out in Loja and analyses of the results in Buenos Aires . When the vertebrae were examined, the experts were able to make a particularly useful find – not the presence of chambers, which are more commonly found in a saltasaurus titanosaur (a titanosaurid sauropod dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period with fossils found in Argentina), but a texture that was more sponge like.

This means that the animal was more similar to a Neuquensaurus australis (a genus of saltasaurid sauropod dinosaur that is from the same period but has left fossils in both Argentina and Uruguay).

And with this information in hand, Apesteguía told El Universo that the image of what the dinosaur looked like became clear:

“The comparison of the vertebrae, especially the caudal [tail] vertebrae of the Neuquensaurus, to the Patagonian saltasaurus, they have exactly the same form and size.

That means the animal is identical to Neuquensaurus, including the internal structure of the bones. So, it wasn’t necessary to invent much.

It’s pretty much placing the parts we have of the Yamanasaurus on the skeleton of a Neuquensaurus. It’s really rather simple. They are practically identical.”

Analysis of one of the vertebrae.

The researchers believe that the titanosaur was an herbivore that likely ate from smaller trees. But what does Apesteguía mean when he says that Yamanasaurus lojaensis is a medium to smaller-sized dinosaur? In this case, it refers to a creature that measured approximated six meters (19.69 ft.) long, was robust, and had a protective shell, according to El Comercio .

Its skin was also probably covered with tiny bones to provide further protection from predators. The reconstruction of Ecuador’s first known dinosaur was created by Argentinian paleoartist Jorge González.

An artistic representation of the Yamanasaurus lojaensis.

Apart from being Ecuador’s first known example of dinosaur fossils, the significance of this discovery has a wider reach. Apesteguía told El Universo that the find provides another detail on the knowledge of dinosaurs that lived in the region, “It’s the first in Ecuador and scientifically it’s the most northern, most boreal, example of a saltasaur that we have found.

Until now, the most northern was in the north of Argentina. But suddenly there’s a jump and we find the same type of animal from the same time period in Ecuador.”

Experts are aware that the lucky discovery of the titanosaur fossils may mean there are more to find in the area, so they’re already planning for a search, according to El Universo.

But there are very real concerns that if the proper authorities don’t act quickly they may lose out to others finding fossils and selling them on the black market before the experts even start their search.

Reconstruction of the titanosaur.

How ‘secret Inca city’ was found hiding below Amazon jungle rising ‘lost treasure’ hopes

How ‘secret Inca city’ was found hiding below Amazon jungle rising ‘lost treasure’ hopes

Some scholars consider the Incas to be the most powerful in the Americas, occupying the Peruvian mountains until 1572, when the Spaniards captured the last fortress.

Proof of this advanced civilization is still visible today, with Machu Picchu, the most famous tourist destination, becoming the most popular. The least known settlement of Choquequirao is hidden, however, in the shadows of this fortification of the 15th century, which is located 2430 meters above sea level.

Reachable only from a two-day hike from Cusco, this city was one of the last bastions of resistance and spans more than 18,000 square meters into the deep undergrowth of the Amazon jungle. 

Only around 30 percent of Choquequirao has been excavated and Amazon Prime’s “Mysterious World of the Inca” revealed why this location was key. 

The narrator said in 2009: “All across the former empire of the Incas we find numerous strange and mysterious places called Huaca, these were a kind of idol, which according to the Indians, had supernatural powers. 

“In addition to artificially created shrines, a Huaca could be practically anything, such as strangely shaped stones, mountains or lakes. 

How ‘secret Inca city’ was found hiding below Amazon jungle rising ‘lost treasure’ hopes
The lost city of the Inca
The place was chosen as a strategic location

“Many remained hidden from the Spanish like Choquequirao, another gem of Inca architecture escaped destruction at the hands of the conquerors. “This is thanks to its inaccessibility, as it hides in the shadows of the famous Machu Picchu. 

“It is likely that its significance was more practical than spiritual, on nearby slopes they grew cocoa, an ideal plant for the local climate.”  The series went on to reveal how this settlement was first uncovered.  The narrator added: “After the death of the last Inca, at the end of the 16th century, Choquequirao fell into oblivion.

The city hides many secrets

“The first Europeans arrived in this place only in the mid 19th century and the city, which means Cradle of Gold, was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham. 

“The character of the buildings, with typical trapezoidal windows and embrasure spaces, where residents placed their daily articles, is important, including the ingenious system of canals and precise orientation of the elegant buildings. 

“It was not noticed and thanks to the luxurious vegetation and nearly impassable terrain of the East Andes, the last ruler – Tupac Amaru – was able to rule over the last Inca territory not conquered by the Spanish.” 

However, the series went on to reveal how evidence of the last civilization may still remain below the undergrowth. 

The discovery was made in the rainforest
The discovery was made in the rainforest
Many secrets of the Inca are still surfacing

It continued: “Defended by several wild valleys and his trusted followers, he went to the very edge of the Amazon forest, forming the last secret city of the Incas. 

“After wading through the river, the Spanish force finally reached it thanks to information from a betrayer. 

“But perhaps the ruins of the palaces of the last Inca hide unknown secrets and they main contain part of the still undiscovered treasure of the Incas. 

“Somewhere the jungle is covering the last sanctuary of the great Inca sun god, but it will be many years before more is revealed.” 

Machu Picchu is both a cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since its discovery, a growing number of tourists have visited the site.  Now it is one of Peru’s most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator, it is continually exposed to economic and commercial forces. 

In the late Nineties, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car and a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants and a bridge to the site.  Many people protested the plans, saying that more visitors would pose a physical burden on the ruins. 

Archaeologists Discover 3,000-Year-Old Megalithic Temple Used by a ‘Water Cult’

Archaeologists Discover 3,000-Year-Old Megalithic Temple Used by a ‘Water Cult’ in Peru

The ruins of an ancient mega temple in Peru, believed to have been built some 3,000 years ago, are uncovered in an archeological excavation.

It is believed that the temple was dedicated to water worship. It was concluded by experts on the basis of the location of altars, their shape, and their position.

In the archeological complex Huaca El Toro, in Oyotún district of Peru’s Lambayeque, old megalithic remains were discovered.

Walter Alva, director of the Sipan Museum Royal Tombs, stated that the Temple is situated near the junction of two ancient rivers, the Nanchoc River and the Udima River Sacred Place.

It is precisely there where an ancient culture chose to construct a massive temple.

Although temples are not a rarity in Peru, this is the only megalithic structure that has been discovered so far in Peru’s Lambayeque region.

To the surprise of archaeologists, excavations revealed that the ancient temple had been constructed entirely of supermassive stones. The facade, as well as the side wall s of the temple, were all built using massive granite blocks.

Some of the megalithic stones bear messages on their surfaces. The symbols suggest that the massive granite blocks were hauled from sacred places.

The temple was used as a center for the worship of water. In front of the megalithic construction are altars representing the cult of water. Water is thought to have been considered divine at the time.

The temple was surrounded by tiny wells or “pocitos” that the ancient people used to predict rainy seasons.

Based on archeological evidence the researchers concluded that from around 1,500 BC to around 292 AD, as many as three construction phases took place.

The oldest of the three construction phases saw the use of smaller conical adobes where its builder used stones of smaller dimensions. The second construction phase was an evolution in construction techniques where larger stones were used.

It was in the third construction phase that its builders opted for the use of megalithic stones.

The temple features a circular column where archeologists discovered evidence of sedimentation of rains and rituals.

The temple faces the mountain and experts argue the structure was used strictly for ceremonial practices. They discovered signs of burning rock at the site. The ancients may as well have used the site to perform rituals linked to fertility.

The discovery also features a tomb from the Final Formative period during which the temple is thought to have lost importance. The archaeologists also uncovered around 20 tombs that belonged to the Chimu-Inca culture, indicating the tombs were probably reused in later times.

All of the tombs feature pottery fragments as well as metal objects that were placed as offerings next to the tombs.

Archeologists explained that the site is regarded as the central water cult temple for the entire Zaña Valley.

Around 300 BC when the Chavin culture lost power, the temple lost its importance which coincides with the appearance of smaller theocratic societies, farmers and warriors.

To build this site, ancient people had to move stones from mountains around 1.86 miles (3 kilometers) away.

Nazca Line Discoveries in Peru Suggest the Mysterious Geoglyphs Are Pervasive

Nazca Line Discoveries in Peru Suggest the Mysterious Geoglyphs Are Pervasive

In Peru, the Nazca Lines are the most mysterious archeological geoglyphs. For nearly a century, these humanoid, geometric forms and animal glyphs have confused experts.

Scientists from Japan now claim that up to 143 new images have been found near the UNESCO World Heritage site. One was discovered using new artificial intelligence and it is believed that this technology could now reveal a flood of more glyphs.

The Nazca Lines have been studied since 2004 by a group from Yamagata University in Japan headed by Prof. Masato Sakais, a specialist in Andean archeology.

They suspected that there were new geoglyphs still to be discovered. This was “based on an on-site investigation begun in 2010 as well as aerial pictures” reports Asahi.com. The Nazca Lines are on a plateau on the pampa and are some 250 miles (80 kilometers) south of Lima the capital of Peru.

A press release from IBM Research describes the manmade phenomena as “shapes of varying complexity – from simple geometric shapes and plants to zoomorphic designs of animals — some several hundreds of meters in length, etched into the terrain”.

The lines date from anywhere between 500 BC to 500 AD and they were created by pre-Incan people. They were possibly used as solar calendars or more likely for ceremonial purposes and many can be considered to be ritual art.

Asahi.com reports that “until now, it was thought that 80 or so geoglyphs exist”. However, the team from Yamagata University used drones and 3D data to identify up to 143 new geoglyphs. According to a press release by Yamagata University, ‘these geoglyphs depicted people and many different animals (including birds, monkeys, fish, snakes, foxes, felines, and camelids). One of the new images “shows a two-headed snake that appears to be devouring two people”.

Two-headed snake geoglyph, approximately 98 feet (30 meters) long.

The geoglyphs are of two types, depending on how they were made. The first category comes from the Early Nazca Period and consists of images made by removing black topsoil to reveal white sand.

The second type which was created somewhat later was made by placing earth and stones on the surface. It seems that some of the first types were used for ceremonial purposes and the second type was “produced beside paths or on sloping inclines and are thought to have been used as way posts when traveling” according to Yamagata University.

However, the Japanese team was faced with a number of challenges. They could not manage all the data that they retrieved. So the team and their faculty entered into an academic partnership with IBM Japan Ltd to exploit the tech company’s “extensive initiatives to analyze and leverage large, complex data sets, such as remote sensing and geographical data, with AI” reports Yamagata University.

Strange humanoid image found in the Nazca Pampa.

Yamagata archaeologists collaborated closely with IBM researchers, after a feasibility study that demonstrated the company’s Watson Machine Learning Community Edition, could help in identifying glyphs.

They utilized IBM PAIRS Geoscope, when they surveyed the Nazca Pampa, recently. This is a cloud-based Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that can analyze data from multiple datasets and is especially useful when it comes to geospatial evaluations.

The team used LiDAR, that uses lasers to make a 3D representation of the lines in the desert. They also used images from satellites and drones.

Data from on-the-ground geographical surveys were all collected. All this diverse data was inputted into PAIRS and its AI was able to integrate and evaluate the data in a matter of minutes where previously such an analysis would have taken months.

The researchers found a 15 foot (5 meters) long geoglyph of a humanoid figure. This figure appears to be “brandishing some form of the club” reports Fox News. Furthermore, “AI analysis of aerial footage indicated there are more than 500 other candidate sites” reports Ashai.com. One of these was subsequently proven to be a site of ritual art.

These finds are important in themselves but also demonstrated how AI could be used to speed up the process of identifying new Nazca Lines.

The new technology will be used along with fieldwork to further study the images that have been found. This will result in a map of the new geoglyphs and will help in the development of a comprehensive map for the entire location.

Not only can they help to locate new Nazca Lines, but IBMs technology can also help to preserve the UNESCO World Heritage site. “Professor Sakai and others have carried out activities to preserve this heritage site” in recent years report Yamagata University.

The mysterious glyphs are being threatened by the growth of nearby urban areas. It is hoped that AI technology can also play a part in determining the distribution of the lines so that they can be better protected.

Babies Buried Wearing ‘Helmets’ Made of Skulls of Other Children Discovered in Ecuador

Babies Buried Wearing ‘Helmets’ Made of Skulls of Other Children Discovered in Ecuador

While the head of humans is a powerful symbol in many cultures in South America, archeologists at a site in Ecuador were surprised to find that two babies buried with “helmet” made from the skulls of other kids. 

The Salango ritual complex on the central coast, dating back to approximately 100BC, was a site used as a funerary platform by a chiefdom culture called Guangala.

During the excavation between 2014 and 2016, 11 individuals buried with small artifacts, shells, and stone ancestor figurines. More notably, two infants were found with the modified skulls of others encasing their heads.

Infant discovered at Salango, Ecuador, with a skull “helmet.” Remains were excavated in collaboration with the local Salango community; shared with their permission and according to the standards of the Ecuadorian government.

The research team – composed of Sara Juengst and Abigail Bythell of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Richard Lunniss and Juan José Ortiz Aguilu of the Universidad Técnica de Manabí in Ecuador – explained this unusual burial ritual in a new article published in the journal Latin American Antiquity.

One burial was that of an infant who was about 18 months old when they died. In describing the image of this burial, Juengst and colleagues note that “the modified cranium of a second juvenile was placed in a helmet-like fashion around the head of the first, such that the primary individual’s face looked through and out of the cranial vault of the second.”

The human skull helmet came from another child between 4-12 years at death. The second infant was only about 6-9 months old at death, with a skull helmet made from a child who was between 2-12 years at death.

In studying both burials, the archaeologists noticed that there was very little space between the primary skeletons and their skull helmets, “suggesting the simultaneous burial of the primary individual and the additional cranium.”

While isolated skulls are often found in South American mortuary contexts, they are typically adults who are victims of war or are idolized ancestors.

Children’s heads are far less commonly found by archaeologists, causing Juengst and colleagues to suggest that this unusual or symbolic form of burial at Salango “may represent an attempt to ensure the protection of these ‘pre-social and wild’ souls.”

Surrounding the infants with stone ancestor figurines may have further empowered the heads, providing protective measures for these prematurely deceased individuals, they write.

“We’re still pretty shocked by the find,” “Not only is it unprecedented, but there are also still so many questions.” She is hoping that in-progress DNA and isotope analyses will contribute new information to understanding who the children were and whether they were related to the individuals who became their skull helmets.

Juengst says that there are “various possibilities for the origin of the extra crania, from potentially curated ancestor skulls to them being worn in life as well as in death, so we definitely have a lot of ideas to work with.”

Bioarchaeologist Sara Becker of the University of California Riverside calls this burial practice “pretty amazing – I’ve never heard of anything like it elsewhere in the Andes.”

In considering Juengst and colleagues’ findings, Becker suggests that it “makes me consider practices elsewhere where heads are buried in chests as if they are ‘seeds’ to help with agricultural productivity. I do wonder if it has something to do with rebirth, and if these children could have been important symbols of that.”

Sîan Halcrow of the University of Otago, an expert on ancient burials of children, also finds this new research study fascinating for its implications for the study of evidence of disease on children’s bodies.

Halcrow points out that Juengst and colleagues discovered evidence of anemia on the bones of both the two primary infants as well as the individuals who were used as helmets.

Lesions were found on the remains of both of the infants (a and d), suggesting the baby suffered some kind of bodily stress, perhaps from malnutrition. One of the skull helmets can be seen in photos b and c.

While “the authors state that this finding is unusual for the area and time period,” Halcrow thinks “this is likely due to the previous lack of interest of the study of infant disease in the region and development of new methods for identifying disease in this age group.” Further analysis of children’s skeletons is an ongoing research theme in the bioarchaeology of South America.

This unique Ecuadorian mortuary practice may seem strange, even within the context of ancient Andean cultures replete with the imagery and manipulation of heads, because of the young age of all of the children involved.

“Dealing with the death of young infants is always emotional,” Juengst concludes, “but in this case, it was strangely comforting that those who buried them took extra time and care to do it in a special place, perhaps accompanied by special people, in order to honor them.”