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28.11.2015 - 21:15 Uhr  
Department of Human Evolution

Breaking News

September 23, 2015
The oldest case of decapitation in the Americas

A 9,000 year-old case of human decapitation has been found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in Brazil

Few Amerindian habits impressed the European colonizers more than the taking and displaying of human body parts, especially when decapitation was involved. Although disputed by some authors, it has become widely accepted that decapitation was common among Native Americans across the entire continent. The archaeological evidence confirms that the practice has deep chronological roots. In South America, the oldest decapitation occurred in the Andes and dates to ca. 3000 years before the present. Since all other South American archaeological cases occur in the Andes (e.g., Inca, Nazca, Moche, Wari, Tiwanaco) it was assumed that decapitation was an Andean phenomenon in both its origins and in its most unambiguous expression.

Link to Max Planck Press Release

André Strauss, Rodrigo Elias Oliveira, Danilo V. Bernardo, Domingo C. Salazar-García, Sahra Talamo, Klervia Jaouen, Mark Hubbe, Sue Black, Caroline Wilkinson, Michael Phillip Richards, Astolfo G. M. Araujo, Renato Kipnis, Walter Alves Neves
The oldest case of decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil)
PLOS ONE; 23 September 2015


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Led by Jean-Jacques Hublin, the Department of Human Evolution was founded in 2004 as part of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA). The department primarily studies fossil hominins and aims to reconstruct their biology, behavior and cultural evolution. Hominins are an extremely successful group of species that have expanded across the entire planet and have succeeded in coping with virtually all eco-geographical niches. Hominins have modified their environment to a spectacular extent, provoked one of the most major mass extinctions in the earth’s history, and have developed some degree of control over their own genome and those of other species. For the first three or four millions years of their evolution, like other mammals, hominins competed with other species and adapted to environmental changes primarily through biological adaptations; that is, by modifying their size, diet, locomotion and reproductive pattern. However, during the last two million years, the development of complex behavior related to the emergence of technology and more broadly, to human culture, has opened an entirely new chapter of primate evolution. Human evolution is unparalleled in life history because it is a bio-cultural process. What makes this process unique is the increasing importance of culture in the adaptive strategy of the species and, even more so, the increased interaction between culture and biology.

Addressing questions such as:
“What factors led to the emergence of humans?”,
“What makes them different from other primates?” or
“What is anatomical and cultural modernity?”
requires the interdisciplinary perspective of researchers coming from very different backgrounds. Also of importance is the study of extant and fossil apes in order to access the entire spectrum of adaptations covered by our closest relatives.


The Department of Human Evolution hosts two associated Research Groups:

Max Planck Research Group on Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology

Max Planck Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology (MPWC)


In addition to research at the MPI-EVA, there is a strong commitment to education and training. Prospective Ph.D. candidates are encouraged to consider the
Leipzig School of Human Origins, (IMPRS - International Max Planck Research School) which started in 2005.