Humans, along with most mammals, have seven cervical vertebrae. The first of your cervical vertebrae (C1) articulates with the occipital bone of your skull and the last (C7) articulates with your first thoracic vertebra. While C3-C7 look very similar (see C5 as an example to the left), C1 and C2 are specialized cervical vertebrae (see image to the left). Your first cervical vertebra, C1, is referred to as the atlas, and the articulation of the occipital bone with the atlas is called the atlanto-occipital joint. This joint allows flexion and extension of your head – think of a nodding yes movement. Your second cervical vertebra is called the axis, and its articulation with the C1 forms the atlanto-axial joint which allows for rotational movement – think shaking your head ‘no’.
Evidence of cutmarks on the cervical vertebra and/or cranial elements has archaeologically and forensically been used to identify incidences of decapitation. Several years ago, researchers identified a case of decapitation in Brazil from cutmarks on the C6 vertebra (near the C6/C7 joint, see image below) and the mandible as well as a fracture to the atlas, signaling soft tissue and neck removal (Strauss et al. 2015). This pattern of injury was identified on a young male individual from Lapo do Santo, approximately 9,000 years ago, making it the oldest known case in the New World. Given that isotopic and morphological analyses revealed no reason to think that this individual was an outsider, this decapitation may have more to do with a complex mortuary ritual (Strauss et al. 2015). While this site may be one of the oldest examples, incidences of decapitation are prevalent in the archaeological record all over the world whether it be an act of war, trophy display, or for mortuary or other ritualized practices (Carty 2012; Nikolić et al. 2017).
And that’s a wrap on the cervical vertebrae, and on the spine as a whole. Tomorrow we will be looking at the ribs.
REFERENCES & MORE TO EXPLORE
Cervical spine. Perry & Salvador. KenHub Anatomy. Last reviewed October 2020
Decapitation in reality and fine art: A review. Nikolić et al. Forensic Science International. November 2017
The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil). Strauss et al. PLOS. 2015
‘The Halved Heads’: Osteological Evidence for Decapitation in Medieval Ireland. Carty. International Perspectives in Medieval Archaeology. 2012