Decorative skull reshaping

Intentional reshaping of the skull during childhood has been reported from all over the ancient world but it seemed to be most popular among the peoples who lived in the Andes before the Spanish conquistadores arrived. On the left you can see two examples I found this morning in the national museum of the Banco Central del Ecuador, one of Quito’s largest archaeological museums.

The pictures aren’t the best as they were taken with my second-rate mobile phone camera, but click if you want a larger version.

These are skulls from the Machililla culture that dates from around 1,600 – 800 BC, although the practice was widespread.

Unfortunately, it seems not much has been written on the practice, but there is one excellent article 2005 that was published in the journal Child’s Nervous System.

As the article notes, the practice was typically used to denote group membership or to indicate social class:

In large and complex societies, a uniform head shape reflected that the individuals belonged to the same or similar group. In smaller, less complex societies head shape demarcated group differences. The Indians in Oruro—in what is now Bolivia—serve as an example of what happened in small societies, where cranial shaping was used for cast differentiation: high-class Indians had tabular erect heads, the middle class had tabular oblique heads, and the rest of the people had ring-shaped heads.

In the Muisca culture, in Colombia, intentional cranial deformation was a sign of hierarchy, performed only in the high classes: it was a sign of social status like clothes, accessories, funeral ceremonies, and tombs. In certain pre-Columbine cultures like the Caribe Indians in Colombia, the Aymaras in Bolivia, and the Patagones in Argentina, cranial deformation was performed only on men and it was an important factor for becoming a member of the ldquowarrior classrdquo. In Borneo and on the European continent, head-shaping was performed only on women with an aesthetic purpose. Among the Calchaquí Indians in the north of Argentina, in the Philippines, and in the Celebes islands, head-shaping was performed on both sexes.

Some ancient writings linked the purpose of this practice to the intention by certain populations to dominate other people. According to Santa Cruz Pachacuti, the Inca leaders Manco Capac and Lrsquooke Yupanki ordered the heads of the newborn Aymara Indians to be tightly squeezed to make them foolish, unintelligent, and obedient. However, studies of indigenous groups who practiced cranial deformation in newborns, such as the British Columbian Indians or the Amazonian natives, did not find evidence of any neurological or psychological impairment.

The article also notes that the method used above, compression of the head using boards, was not the only method.

Two other methods were widely used that are illustrated on the right.

One involved tightly wrapping the head with a binding that was progressively adjusted, and the other required the child to be restrained against a portable cradle-board that had an additional plank that would push down on the skull.

Link to locked article on skull deformation in Andean people.

One Comment

  1. Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Hi Vaughan,
    I hope you are enjoying your time in latin America.
    Really interesting these deformating practices.
    An additional example: the collaguas from the Colca Valley in Peru.
    I’ve just found a link.
    Kind regards,
    Albert

    http://bit.ly/bodeGs


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