As we continue to see in the modern era, human history has seen no shortage of brutality and bloodshed, which can often make archeological work seem pretty grim. At its most basic, archaeology is all about the exhumation of things that have long been defunct or dead: people, items and even cultures. With so much exposure to death and the human capacity to bring it about, one can expect most archeologists to develop a certain degree of familiarity with the macabre, so when they discover something that strikes them as unusually horrific, you know you’ve got something crazy in your hands.

Such is the case with a recent discovery made in Salango, Ecuador, where archeologists studying the pre-Columbia Guangala culture stumbled across the bodies of two infants wearing the heads of older children as helmets. Worse still, according to the scientists studying the remains, the heads must have had the flesh intact when they were placed over the infants’ heads, otherwise they would not have stayed in place. It seems possible, if not likely, that all the children were already dead before this went on, but this is nearly impossible to ascertain.

“We have a fairly good idea that this was about ritually ensuring the protection of these children after death,” Sara Juengst, one of the team’s lead archeologists, said of the findings. “Everyone was surprised to find this, from start to finish!”

Sara Juengst / UNC Charlotte

The bodies date back about 2,100 years to a time when children had a perceived spiritual importance among the people that lived in the region. That perceived importance often led to special burial treatments that were meant to protect and preserve the young as they passed on from this life; but while that may sound like a positive and endearing thing, this perceived importance did not always equate to good treatment. It was that very perception of importance that sometimes led to their use in brutal rituals that included human sacrifice — because issues of the utmost importance required to be addressed by sacrifices of equal import.

A paper written by Juengst and her team that was recently published in the peer reviewed journal Latin American Antiquity states the following: “By treating deceased children in unusual or symbolic ways, people created and controlled their universes — given that children’s souls, in particular, acted as benefactors to the living and affected agricultural production, human fertility, and seasonal patterns of rain.”

In the paper, the researchers outline their efforts to pour over papers written by their colleagues that have worked in similar digs, but thus far they have been unable to find anything that even closely resembles the unusual way these kids were buried.

Sara Juengst / UNC Charlotte

This assertion is supported by other grizzly discoveries, including another site in Peru that was found to include the bodies of 137 children and 200 llamas. To date, that event remains the largest mass sacrifice of children ever discovered anywhere on the planet.

The discovery in Salango may involve far fewer children, but it’s also the first time that infants have been discovered wearing such horrific head gear. The remains of the infants suggest malnutrition, meaning that they may have died of natural causes; but it’s difficult to assess how the older kids, whose skulls were used as helmets, died.

“Another possibility is that the extra skulls were children who died first and were modified during later rituals,” Juengst said.

“The fact that there were other people buried there without these helmets is interesting — it’s possible that these infants (or their families) held special roles in society which merited the extra skulls. But all the burials in these burials mounds were treated specially in some way, so it could be different elements of a much larger ritual that we are just beginning to uncover.”