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UT Ancient Americas

Human Representation: Trophy Head Collecting and Mythical Decapitators

Nasca vase with trophy head

Trophy head collection is a common practice across many ancient Andean cultures. Trophy heads can be found across many types of media: painted on ceramics (as so-called “doll faces” or as part of ritual ceremonies), as sculptural effigy jars, on textiles, in architecture and even as mummified specimens. The symbolic nature of the trophy head has shifted over time and differs by culture, signifying a range of meanings from agricultural fertility, to death and regeneration, and to the importance of warfare and sacrifice.1 2 This theme is so prevalent at least one example can likely be found in every collection of pre-Columbian Andean art around the world. Although trophy head taking may seem barbaric by modern standards, it was an important part of ancient Andean life and culture spanning nearly 3000 years.

Decapitators are figures that emphasize the relationship between trophy heads and Anthropomorphic Mythical Beings (AMBs). The AMBs are typically costumed shamans that are performing rituals related to sacrifice, with the trophy heads acting as the offerings. Trophy heads are typically seen in the hands of AMBs or attached to their belts. Often the AMBs are depicted on the upper register of the vessel with the trophy heads on the lower register. Both motifs come together to represent the theme of decapitation. The AMBs are often also portrayed as so-called “trophy head tasters,” though in earlier Nasca times AMBs have their tongue out towards a trophy head, and in Late Nasca periods the AMBs are reduced to abstracted designs of their faces only, with tongues reaching out to each other, interlocking these faces into a repeating pattern. 

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Nasca vase with trophy head [The hills and distant mountains on the way via train from Mollendo and Arequipa]

The hills and distant mountains on the way via train from Mollendo and Arequipa, 1920s.

At first glance this Nasca head vessel may not evoke much thought from the viewer - perhaps just a simple vessel featuring a painted human face. But upon closer inspection, it becomes much more complex. For anyone familiar with ancient Andean art, the fact that there is no body attached to this head almost certainly means it has been severed from the rest of the body. Trophy head taking is known to be common throughout ancient Andean cultures and it comes as no surprise that it shows up in art across many cultures. Although the taking of a human head may seem barbaric it is posited that the act may have symbolized death and regeneration and even agricultural fertility in the harsh desert climate of Peru’s southern coast.3 Other works of pottery depicting ritual ceremonies related to agriculture often include images of trophy heads.4 Over time, throughout the 700-year span of the Nasca, the link between trophy heads and agriculture weakens and they become more symbolic of warfare.5

One striking feature of this vessel is the mouth. Depictions of trophy heads are commonly shown with spines or other types of binding through the lips. Parallels can be drawn between the Nasca and the Jivaro Tribe, who also took human heads. This action was believed to have been done for a spiritual purpose. By sewing the mouth closed the taker of the head would be protected from harm by keeping the victim’s spirit trapped within and unable to avenge their murder.6 In a more practical sense, during the mummification process the lips were pinned together with one or two spines from the local huarango tree to prevent the jaws from separating and distorting the features of the face.7 8

Another notable characteristic of this vessel is the geometric headpiece, represented by the opening of the jar, which is painted with geometric criss-crossing designs. Most of the trophy head jars that have this same shape feature some sort of geometric detail in the form of a head covering, whether it be a crosshatch pattern, stripes, interlocking shapes or other simple or elaborate designs. In other ceramics where warriors are featured, they are dressed in elaborate headgear and capes emphasizing the important link between warfare and head-taking.9

Nasca double spout and bridge vessel with human heads and mythical beings

This double-spout-and-bridge vessel is from the South Andean coast dating to the Early Intermediate period (ca. 200 BCE to 600 CE). The object's polychromatic appearance is made from slip paints applied before firing. The designs on the object are made with black outlines (mainly seen in the band of trophy heads) and consist of hues such as white, yellow, and red. The upper register of the vessel depicts Anthropomorphic Mythical Beings (AMBs) rendered only as their heads, and stylized to appear like a repeating pattern of alternating colors. The body of the vessel has been burnished, which gives the surface a shiny and smooth appearance. The style of this object is known as the “proliferous style” from the Late Nasca phases 6 and 7, because of  the abstract nature of the designs, which appear less naturalistic than in earlier phases and seem like a decorative pattern rather than a figurative depiction.10 The vessel is divided into upper and lower registers by a black line around the middle of the vessel's body. The AMBs wrap around the upper part of the vessel, connected by their tongues linking them all together. The trophy heads lined up in a horizontal row on the lower part of the vessel are painted in frontal view facing outward, which commonly occurs in other Late Nasca ceramics on the lower register.

1 Helaine Silverman and Donald Proulx. The Nasca. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2002).

2 Donald A. Proulx. “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”. The Studio Potter 29, no. 1 (December 2000): 36–43.

3 Donald A. Proulx. “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”. The Studio Potter 29, no. 1 (December 2000): 36–43.

4 Robert Townsend. “Deciphering the Nazca World: Ceramic Images from Ancient Peru.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 11, no. 2 (Spring 1985):116-139.

5 Helaine Silverman and Donald Proulx. The Nasca. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2002).

6 Donald A. Proulx. “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”. The Studio Potter 29, no. 1 (December 2000): 36–43.

7 Donald Proulx. “Ritual Uses of Trophy Heads in Ancient Nasca Society.” in Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru, ed. Elizabeth Benson and Anita Cook (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001): 119-136.

8 Helaine Silverman and Donald Proulx. The Nasca. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2002).

9 Donald A. Proulx. “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”. The Studio Potter 29, no. 1 (December 2000): 36–43.

10 Donald A. Proulx. “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”. The Studio Potter 29, no. 1 (December 2000): 3.

11 Henry Batterman, Brooklyn Museum.

12 Donald A. Proulx. “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”. The Studio Potter 29, no. 1 (December 2000): 4.

13 Donald Proulx. “Ritual Uses of Trophy Heads in Ancient Nasca Society.” in Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru, ed. Elizabeth Benson and Anita Cook (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001): 6.

14 Donald A. Proulx. “Headhunting in Ancient Peru”. Archaeological Institute of America, vol. 24, no.1(1971):21.

15 Donald A. Proulx. “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”. The Studio Potter 29, no. 1 (December 2000): 10.