Two earthenware pots discovered in luggage at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in April contained parts of human skulls that were used in Palo Mayombe religious rites, anthropologists at the University of Florida found—as The Sun Sentinel reports.
Palo Mayombe is a Congolese religion brought to Cuba during the slave trade, said Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. Its rites combine devotion to a spirit with natural objects like shells or sticks as well as human bones, she said.
Each clay or terra cotta pot taken from two women who returned to the U.S. from Cuba contained a separate set of remains: one is believed to be from a man, the other from a woman.
Stains from soil contact on the cranial fragments indicate both dead people likely were buried in dirt or wooden caskets that disintegrated before their skulls were unearthed and later split, apparently with a hack saw, according to the University of Florida’s C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory in Gainesville.
On April 24, the travelers told the Broward Sheriff’s Office they purchased the pots at a religious shop in Cuba and said they were told the artifacts would ward off evil spirits.
The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office released UF’s reports last week. It had sent the bones to UF for study and said Thursday it doubts it will ever be able to figure out where the relics came from.
There was no evidence of traumatic injury to the skulls while the people were alive, UF Associate Professor and Lab Director Dr. Michael W. Warren said Thursday.
“At this point in the investigation, there is no evidence that a crime was committed that would warrant federal prosecution,” Nestor Yglesias, spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations, which took over the case, said Thursday.
It can be a violation of state law to knowingly and unlawfully store and maintain human remains.
Both pots were decorated with cowrie shells and held cotton, red soil and black hair, likely from a dog.
One also contained sea pods that have significance for certain gods associated with water; clothing; and three large cranial fragments whose shapes suggest they belonged to a middle-aged or older Hispanic woman, the report states.
Then again, the bones could have belonged to a man.
Warren said that without having many sample skulls from the Caribbean or western Africa for comparison or pelvic bones from each skull’s skeleton, it was impossible to definitively confirm the origin or gender of the remains that he said are less than 75 years old.
A piece of brown paper with a person’s name and a date tucked into that skull was meant to target someone with the magic of the Palo Mayombe ritual, according to Warren. He said he has previously seen names on paper left in skulls among the “dozens” of similar relics his team has studied.
“Our culture may interpret that as negative, but that may not be the case,” said UM’s Maldonado. “It could be more of a petition to a spirit, say for a job, rather than a curse.”