'Unique' Ancient Burial of Two Infants With 'Helmets' Made From Skulls of Other Children Discovered

Researchers have uncovered a bizarre ancient burial on the central coast of Ecuador of two infants with "helmets" made from the skulls of other children.

According to a study published in the journal Latin American Antiquity, the infants were found during excavations between 2014 and 2016 at a ritual complex known as Salango, inside two burial mounds which have been dated to approximately 100 B.C.

Alongside the two infants, the researchers also discovered nine other sets of remains in the burial mounds.

The authors of the study—which was led by Sara Juengst from the Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina–Charlotte—say that this burial is "unique," representing the only known evidence of juvenile skulls being used as ritual headgear.

"As far as we know, this is the only example of this practice anywhere in the world," Juengst told Newsweek. "[Although] including extra heads in burials is not so uncommon in pre-Hispanic South America, either as trophy heads made from enemies, or as ensuring links to ancestors."

The study suggests that the cranial "helmets" were placed around the head of the infants at the time of burial. All of them showed signs of injury associated with bodily stress. The researchers say it's likely that the skull "helmets" still had flesh on them when they were used as headgear because without it, they would have fallen apart, LiveScience reported.

According to the researchers, the human head was a "potent symbol" for many ancient South American cultures.

"Heads were commonly depicted in iconography, pottery, stone, and with literal heads in pre-Columbian South America," Juengst said. "They are generally representative of power, ancestors, and may demonstrate dominance over other groups—such as through the creation of trophy heads from conquered enemies. Children were also seen by many Andean groups as special in ritual circumstances—such as the Inca sacrifice of children on mountaintops."

Salango burial head
One of the infant skulls found at the Salango burial site. Sara Juengst

It currently remains to be seen how the infants and other children died, or indeed why the "helmets" were made in the first place. However, one hypothesis is that they were intended as a form of protection in the afterlife. The team found several stone figurines depicting ancestors beside the infant burials, lending further credence to this idea.

"We don't have any evidence that any of these children were sacrificed and the presence of pathology suggests that they probably were quite ill anyway," she said. "What the relationship was (if any) between the primary burials and additional skulls is unclear currently though. We suspect that they were doing this in reaction to some sort of natural or social disaster and are ensuring that these infants had extra protection or extra links to ancestors through their burials."