From the 3-million-year-old skeleton of Lucy to the 5,000-year-old Italian Iceman Otzi, human remains tell humanity’s most-intimate stories. Without human remains, archaeologists are left with fragments of scenery and discarded props, but no actors.
A fascinating example of what studies of human remains can tell us about ancient lives was published in the June issue of the Journal of Archaeological Research Reports. Archaeologist Daniel Jones at Georgia State University, along with a team of biological anthropologists and a geologist, investigated six human skulls found in a pit beneath Elizabeth Mound 3 in Illinois. All of the other burials in the mound were complete skeletons. Jones and his colleagues sought to answer who these six people were based only on their severed heads.
Elizabeth Mound 3 was built during the Middle Woodland period, around 2,000 years ago. Though rare, archaeologists have encountered other examples of isolated human skulls buried within mounds from this period. One interpretation is that these were heads taken as trophies during warfare.
There are, however, a couple of problems with this explanation. For one thing, there is little other evidence of violent conflict during the Middle Woodland period. There are no fortified villages and no documented cases of traumatic injuries or spear points embedded in skeletons.
In addition, the rare artistic depictions of severed heads from this period don’t support the idea that they were war trophies. A small stone sculpture found at the Newark Earthworks, for example, shows a person wearing bear regalia and holding a human head. This figurine does not appear to be a warrior with a trophy, but rather a shaman or priest with a holy relic.
Jones and his team wanted to find some way to determine whether the skulls buried together at Elizabeth Mound 3 were ancestors or enemies of the other people buried in the mound.
As bones grow, a variety of trace elements from…