A pot filled with skull and teeth fragments found at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in April have been identified by University of Florida anthropologists as human skulls used for religious rites, the Sun Sentinel reports.
The skulls were used for a Congolese religion known as Palo Mayombe. The religion, brought to Cuba, worships a spirit with objects like shells, sticks or human bones, Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, told the newspaper.
When the fragments were found, the travelers told the Broward Sheriff's Office that they bought the pots from a "religious-type shop" while in Cuba.
The Broward Medical Examiner's Office sent the bones to UF for research, the newspaper reported.
UF Associate Professor and Director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory Michael W. Warren told the newspaper that there was no evidence of the people facing traumatic injuries to their skulls while they were alive. The remains were likely buried in caskets that disintegrated before the skulls were unearthed.
Warren said most ritual bones are gathered through grave robberies. He said a practitioner visits a cemetery and sprinkles rum on the ground "until they find a spirit receptive to the ceremony, and will dig up the grave."
One of the pots found had sea pods, which is significant for certain gods associated with water. The three cranial fragments in the pot suggested the remains belonged to a middle-aged or older Hispanic woman, according to UF's report, the newspaper said.
The bones in that pot were wrapped in a white cotton sundress that had human blood residue on it.
"They'll put the altar together, have the initiate stand over it and cut themselves to put blood in as a sympathetic merging with the spirit of the person in the pot," Warren told the newspaper.
He said that the lab doesn't have many sample skulls from the Caribbean or Western Africa. Without the samples, or the pelvic bones from each skull's skeleton, he would not be able to confirm the gender or origin of the remains. However, he said they are less than 75 years old.
The second pot had two large skull fragments that likely belonged to a Hispanic man.
Part of the Palo Mayombe ritual is to tuck a brown piece of paper with a person's name and a date into the skull. It is meant to target someone with the magic of the ritual, Warren said. He said he has seen this before.
"Our culture may interpret that as negative, but that may not be the case," Maldonado told the newspaper. "It could be more of a petition to a spirit, say for a job, rather than a curse."
But Warren said people shouldn't fear the bones.
"It's a misunderstood cultural practice," he told the newspaper." But it creates a medical and legal problem when they show up, like it did in this case."
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