4,000-year-old Skulls Suggest Scalping Practice in China

Five skulls with cut marks dating back 4,000 years have recently been found in China's more remote areas, suggesting that the ancient Chinese, like the native American Indian, participated in the practice of scalping.

"This bloodcurdling practice has been recorded in the history of the northern area of the Eurasian continent and of the native American Indian tribes, but it is not something that has been recorded in Chinese documents," said Chen Xingcan, a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The skulls were discovered near Handan, Hebei Province, and in Wuzhi County, Henan Province.

"The traces on the two skulls found in Henan are very like those left by the scalping practised by native American Indians," said Chen.

The cuts left on the skulls were probably made by blunt stone tools, Chen said. According to researchers of native American Indian culture, not all cuts on skulls were left by scalping. Only those cuts that make a circle, especially around the top of the skull, were caused by scalping.

It is thought that scalping was usually executed on a dead person, but some research suggests that it could also have been executed on a living person, said Chen. This evidence of scalping in China goes back further than any other evidence found on the Eurasian continent, and equals in age the earliest scalping evidence found in America, dating back to 2,500-1,000 BC.

Archaeologists are still not certain about the origin of the custom nor how it spread. American researchers argue that native Americans practised scalping for three reasons.

First, it was an aspect of their religions. The scalps were dedicated to their gods. Second, the scalp represented a person's life. Scalping an enemy could appease the hatred of the dead person's relatives and friends. Third, the practice of scalping symbolized the courage and strength of the victor. Scalping in America only took place during conflict between competing tribes, said Chen.

Scalping in China happened in a society in which classes were differentiated, a similar sort of social inequality.

Archaeologists will not be able to explain the social and cultural meanings of scalping in China until more evidence is found, Chen added.

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