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Published Sunday, March 8, 2015

Cranial Deformation – Odd Mods 2

This is a Peruvian skull (Image: Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a practice that may go back as far as 45,000 years. Homo Sapiens (That’s us) may not have been the only humans to do it. It spans cultures, continents and entire eras of human history. This week, we’re talking head shaping, aka Cranial Deformation, aka the Toulouse Deformity, aka Definitely Not Alien Skulls.

First, let’s delve into the practice during the modern era. That’s right, head shaping isn’t a thing of the stone age. It’s been a part of many modern cultures. In some parts of Africa and South America, the practice didn’t begin to really die out until the 20th century. Photographs of Mangbetu women with elongated skulls were published as late as the 1970s in National Geographic. Though the practice is discouraged today, there are still pockets of people doing it around the world, as part of their traditions and cultures, and in some places as part of their religion.

How is it done?

This is where things get dicey in the modern world. The skull is elastic only in younger children, between birth and two years of age. So the practice involves using either boards, wraps or leather to restrict the skull from growing normally. This causes the skull to grow either up and out or to the sides, depending on the type of shape desired (More on this below).

In other words, the only way to get a shaped head as a grown up is for someone to do it to a baby. You can see where this might be discouraged. While many cultures believed that the practice made children smarter by increasing the size of the cranium, we now know that the size of your melon has nothing to do with your IQ (Though modern studies of people with shaped skulls indicate that it doesn’t really hurt your IQ either). Also, scientists in South America studying thousand-year-old Mayan skulls found evidence that sometimes people could be a little overzealous with their shaping, resulting in a… well, sort of a “blow out”. So that’s reason number 2 it’s discouraged now.

Rather than dwell on that, let’s look at the history of head shaping.

In terms of written history,

This gentleman is unknown, but the restoration is by Didier Descouens. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

We have both Hesiod and Hippocrates writing in the 7th and 5th centuries BCE respectively. Both mention a tribe, likely in Africa, that used bandages to stretch their children’s skulls. Both the tribe described by the Greeks, and the Mayans when questioned by a Spanish historian said that the practice was meant to make them appear more noble.

For the Mayan’s in particular, the practice was meant to separate the nobles from the plebes. According to a paper published by Dr. Vera Tiesler in 1999, in which her and her colleagues reviewed some 1500 Mayan skulls ranging from the 2nd century BCE to the 1500s, the practice was religious, widespread, and a method of separating the more noble classes from the commoners. Over 90% of the skulls they examined were shaped in some artificial way, and the practice was evenly spread between men and women.

One type of shaping,

The “oblique” type, produced a tall, pointed head, and was for those destined for high status. The “erect” style, which was round on top and flattened on the sides, was for the more common folk. Since they’re doing this when you’re a baby, the idea of upward mobility is pretty rare. But not unheard of. While it’s true that burials show that mostly people with the oblique style skull wind up in the VIP style graves, the occasional erect style skull winds up there too. So your whole life wasn’t determined by just your skull.

The oldest known remains showing head shaping were found mostly in Iran, in places like Shanidar cave, Ganj Dareh, and Tepe Ghenil, and at Bouqras in Syria. All of the sites are approximately 10,000 years old. The number of skulls found with intentional deformations compared to the total number of skulls indicates that the practice was limited to certain individuals, but it was practiced by both males and females.

Remember when...

These skulls are from Paracas, Peru (Image: Marcin Tlustochowicz, Wikimedia Commons)

I said that we might not have been the only humans to do it? 45,000-year-old Neanderthal skulls have been found with deformations, but there is some doubt as to the cause, and whether it was intentional or not. Interestingly, the Neanderthal skulls in question? They were also found in Shanidar cave, from a settlement that predated the modern humans there by 30,000 years.

Speaking of unintentional head shaping,

A study published in 2013 in Calgary, ON showed that half the babies examined (from a group of 440) showed signs of flat head syndrome, where the backs of their skulls were flattened. It can be corrected using wraps or modern cranial molding helmets. The cause? Due to what’s known as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) parents are encouraged to have their baby sleep on their back. While this does greatly reduce the chance of SIDS, it can cause some deformation in the backs of some baby heads.

That’s not saying you shouldn’t do it if you’re a new parent. New techniques of varying the baby’s sleeping position and special positioning wraps can easily and safely counteract any flattening that occurs.

Did I say modern cranial molding helmets earlier? That’s right. We may not give our babies pointed heads anymore, but if they happen to get them by accident, we can shape them back to the kind of round skulls that our society finds aesthetically pleasing.


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