Cranial deformation has been the cause of much debate and fascination. The unique shape of the skulls from the Nasca even inspired the most recent Indiana Jones adventure. The elongated skulls and flattened foreheads have created speculation of evidence of aliens or satanic practices. Even this past year, the Daily Mail claimed that skulls found in Peru were potentially those of extraterrestrials. According to the article there are three anthropologists that all agree that these are not human. However, we know that this practice is not only easy to accomplish in humans, but also continues in cultures today (even our own). Moving beyond psuedoarchaeology claims, scholars have still been debating the reasons and methods behind the deformation for hundreds of years. The December 2010 publication from the Journal of Neurosurgery discusses cranial modification from a number of perspectives.
The basic architecture of the human skull is made up of six bones, the occipital, the frontal, two parietal and two temporal bones. While the skull itself is solid in adulthood, the cranial bones of children are malleable. The reason for this is to allow for growth of the brain and head throughout childhood. However, if pressure is applied in certain areas for a long duration during childhood, the shape of the skull can be changed. The bone will slowly ossify into the shape that it is pressed into, making it a permanent feature. Enchev et al. (2010) even note that there likely wasn’t any major neurological damage. Most modified skulls are from adults and old adults, suggesting that it doesn’t create permanent damage.
Cranial vault modification can be achieved through a number of means. Enchev et al. (2010) discuss two types of modification: tabular or annular. Tabular, or “flat-head” modification involves compressing the fontal and occipital with fixed, erect boards or pads. This creates a lateral bulging of the head. A variation on this is when vertical boards are placed higher up on the back of the head to produce more upright modification. Annular modification is produced when bands are wrapped around the forehead and the back of the skull to force the bone to grow upright. Examination of modified crania show that they often vary by individual, attributed to the nature of bone growth and idiosyncratic variation in the application of bands and boards.
Another common term applied to these skulls is cranial deformity, however this term implies that the shape was unwanted or a malformation. Cranial deformities more accurately reflect the change in shape due to the birthing procedure or accidental distortion. One example of this is when infants are strapped to cradle boards, a practice often found in indigenous American populations as a way to protect the neck of the infant during travel.
However, it is unlikely that the changes found in the skulls of Peruvian and Egyptian populations are due to accident. This leads to the question of intent and purpose. In order to understand the reasons for the change, it is important to look at the social and political context of the practice, as well as the identity of the individual and their place within society. Ayer et al. (2010) argue that deformation was a sign of political and socioeconomic status. In support of their hypothesis, they examine a selection of modified crania in Peru and Egypt.
The earliest modified skulls in Peru date between 6000 and 7000 BCE, with the majority of remains from this period showing signs of deformation. There is potential evidence between 1350 to 1200 BCE in Egypt. It has only been found there in elite individuals, and doesn’t appear to be a widespread practice. Ayer et al. (2010) argue that the modification was a literal symbol of being the head of the state. Romero-Vargas et al. (2010) discussed the role of modification in the Maya. In the classic Mayan period, 250 to 900 CE, cranial modification consisted of creating a more erect frontal bone using compression pads. A 16th century Spanish chronicler, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, asked the Mayan why their heads were a different shape, and the reasons behind the modification. They responded: “This is done because our ancestors were told by the gods that if our heads were thus formed we should appear noble and handsome and better able to bear burdens”. Romero-Vargas et al. (2010) argue that the practice has religious and sociocultural meaning, and it is an integral part of someone’s identity.
While the cranial modification issue from the Journal of Neurosurgery does discuss a number of really interesting topics, they do not explore the issue in any depth. Modifying the cranium is a major undertaking and occurred in a variety of cultures through different forms and methods. However, it continues today in order to create the perfect shapes. See Kristina Killgrove’s post on cranial modification and its modern occurrence. It is important to look at the cultural background and compare it against other occurrences. Currently there is only speculation as to the reasons and purposes of the modification.
Ayer A, Campbell A, Appelboom G, Hwang BY, McDowell M, Piazza M, Feldstein NA, & Anderson RC (2010). The sociopolitical history and physiological underpinnings of skull deformation. Neurosurgical focus, 29 (6) PMID: 21121715
Romero-Vargas, S., Ruiz-Sandoval, J., Sotomayor-González, A., Revuelta-Gutiérrez, R., Celis-López, M., Gómez-Amador, J., García-González, U., López-Serna, R., García-Navarro, V., Mendez-Rosito, D., Correa-Correa, V., & Gómez-Llata, S. (2010). A look at Mayan artificial cranial deformation practices: morphological and cultural aspects Neurosurgical FOCUS, 29 (6) DOI: 10.3171/2010.9.FOCUS10200
Enchev Y, Nedelkov G, Atanassova-Timeva N, & Jordanov J (2010). Paleoneurosurgical aspects of Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformations. Neurosurgical focus, 29 (6) PMID: 21121717