Flowers, prayer, dancing at annual Bolivian skull festival

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Carrying human skulls adorned with flowers and coca leaves, hundreds of people danced to cheerful music and prayed for favors Thursday in an annual festival outside a cemetery chapel in Bolivia's capital.

Juliana Zapana, an indigenous Aymara woman, danced holding a skull that she called "Carlos," while her daughter danced with another skull that she called "Luis."

Devotees like Zapata and her family bring skulls known as "natitas" to a cemetery in La Paz, asking for money, health and other favors. They held a short service in a ritual that is celebrated a week after the Day of the Dead and includes the lighting of candles, music and dance.

"We have to bring them joy. It's their birthday and they must have a good time," Zapana said of the skulls.

A few steps away, Yesica Hilary had three skulls, including one attached to a full skeleton that belonged to his brother when he attended medical school.

"I know that these 'natitas' carry out these favors if you have faith," she said.

The festival is a mix of Andean ancestral worship and Roman Catholic beliefs. Experts say it was common in pre-Columbian times to keep skulls as trophies and display them to symbolize death and rebirth.

The Catholic Church considers the festival to be pagan, but it doesn't ban people from taking part.