My bus tour through the Andes of southern Peru took an unexpected stop. We were in the cold, dry highlands, less than 100 miles from Arequipa, when the tour guide insisted that my fellow travelers and I get off the bus “to take a small hike.” We walked through a small farm with some rocky ruins of indeterminate age. But then the guide pointed to a big rock positioned over a hole and told us to look inside.
There were a number of skulls in the hole, and they didn’t look quite right. The crown was too dome-shaped, taller and more cylindrical than usual, it seemed. The guide said these skulls were made to look this way intentionally; these individuals wore bandages wrapped tightly around their heads up until about age five, while their skulls were still soft.
Artificial cranial deformation—or the practice of intentionally changing the shape of a person’s skull—has been practiced by Neanderthals of 40,000 years ago until very recently, maybe even still today. People on every continent except Antarctica have done it, making heads more cylindrical, cone-shaped, ridgier, bumpier or flatter depending on the region. The reason, most archaeologists believe, was pretty much the same reason we modify our bodies today: to show an association with a particular social group.
“Cranial deformation had to do with ideas of beauty, what would be socially acceptable and desirable to look like, and that differed between groups around the world,” Mercedes Okumura, an anthropologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, said in an interview.
Since cranial deformation was so widespread, archaeologists don’t think it originated in just one place. “In a small region like the Andes, it’s easy to see how the practice could spread from one group to the other,” Okumura said. But when scientists find evidence of skull deformation in Australian aborigines from 30,000 years ago and eastern Europeans from 5,000 years ago and Melanesians from a generation ago, it’s harder to pinpoint just how the practice could have traversed so many barriers.
The first cranial deformations may have been by accident. Babies are born with lots of different bones in their skulls, which enables them to exit the womb more easily and for their brains to grow. By age five, the gaps between the bones start to fuse together to make the skull more contiguous, like we see in adults. It’s easy to imagine that a baby with a soft skull that lays for a long time while his mother is working would get a partially flattened skull as a result, Okumura said.
In fact, one of the methods used to deform the skull among Native Americans when was essentially a cradle that had one piece of wood that rests under the infant and another that came out at an angle on the other side of the skull. “Native Americans strapped infants to a board so the kid isn’t flopping around while you’re working, and over time that flattens the head,” said Carl Feagans, who is now an archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Grand Prairie, Texas but published on artificial cranial deformation as a graduate student.
Okumura agreed: “With those [cradle board] deformations, we don’t know if they’re intentional or an accident.”
Different cultures used different methods to shape the skull, which archaeologists know from some of the historical documentation that various cultures left behind. In the Andes, bands of cloth bound tightly around the widest part of the skull gave it a more cylindrical shape. In Europe, the same method was used to create a series of bumps and ridges along the head.
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