The Elongated Skulls Mystery Really isn’t a Mystery at All

From Morton's Crania Americana

In this article, I’m doing something a lot of archaeologists aren’t necessarily comfortable with: showing the remains of an indigenous people, in particular: their skulls. But I think it’s necessary to convey the understanding of the topic and how this topic is visually and emotionally striking.

I came across yet another video in which Brien Foerster gets nearly everything wrong. This, it would seem, must be one of his favorite topics since he has so many videos on it and features many images of so-called “elongated skulls” on his website.

I put the term “elongated skull” in quotes because this really is a poorly applied label. While it’s true there are skulls, particularly in Peru–but in other regions as well, that have what we might describe as an elongated appearance, this isn’t the only result of the practice of artificial cranial modification (ACM).

There are several ways to modify the skull, such as by trepanation (a.k.a. trephanation) and dental adjustments, but the primary aspect of ACM we’re concerned with in this article is that of intentionally shaping the cranium. That is to say, changing the shape of the skull in infancy in order to achieve a desired morphological outcome [1].

While this can be done unintentionally, such as through the practice of cradle boarding, the intentional practice involves binding and, often, bracing methods where the skull is wrapped tightly and perhaps braced with boards or sticks to create pressure in the desired direction of cranial growth.

Mangbetu woman and her child with head bindings. Courtesy Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures

When a child is new born to approximately age 3, the skull is in a very pliable state. Firm, consistent pressure can direct cranial growth in different directions, depending on the method of binding. This has several profound affects on the overall cranium, as you’ll soon see. But first, it’s worth noting that this practice is one that is completely bizarre to modern, Western eyes. It is, in a word, alien.

An alien practice.

And I mean “alien” in it’s truest sense of the word but also in it’s metaphorical sense. The practice of skull shaping is foreign to the us. So foreign, in fact, it can be described as alien. It seems as if this is something from another world, and in many ways, it is. It isn’t possible for us to honestly know all the motivations of ancient Peruvians, or Bolivians. Or any of the hundreds of cultures throughout the world and at various times that practiced intentional skull shaping. There are ethnographic and archaeological accounts of binding the head for shaping in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Australia, Melanesia, North America, Central America, and so on. Every continent on Earth has evidence of ACM.

But when we see the results of this particular practice of ACM, it stirs feelings. It is so bizarre, so foreign, such an alien practice to us, that we cannot come to terms with any reason good enough to do it. Particularly when you remember that this can only be done shortly after birth through the first 3 years or so of childhood before the skull is no longer pliable.

But by alien I do not mean literally from another planet.

Still, I definitely understand the desire to label these skulls with this in mind. And, for those who are devout Christians who think biblical narratives are to be taken seriously, I can kind of understand why talk about “nephilim” can come up with these skulls in the background of the conversation. But, I promise, this is not a practice archaeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists are completely unfamiliar with. In fact, the part about the practice of ACM that is the most mysterious is a what as in “what motivated people to do it?” rather than a how, as in “how did these people get here?”, or “how did there heads get this way?”

Without knowing about the anthropological work done in Melanesia [2] where the practice was witnessed first hand, or without knowing that an entire book was written on the topic in 2014 [3]; or that nearly a dozen researchers have tackled some aspect of ACM since the 1990s… [4] [5] [6]  without knowing these things, it’s easy for the lay person–that person with a genuine, heartfelt interest history, archaeology, and ancient cultures–to get caught up in in the lore and narrative from a single person. And that’s what Foerster does best: he spins a tale, regardless of facts and truth, that fits a narrative he likes. A narrative that, coincidentally, sells. It sells books, videos, and tours.

So what does Foerster get wrong in this video? Just about everything.

The Case of the Missing Suture.

When showing the skull of a person that apparently resides in a museum, on display and indignantly handled in a most pseudoscientific manner of casual disregard one can think of for the deceased, Foerster notes that the cranium has only two plates: one frontal; and one parietal, which he states is not normal for humans.

Except he’s wrong. This is quite normal in human skulls. The suture that separates the two parietal bones is called the sagittal and it can close and ultimately obliterate with age [7]. Not in everyone and not at any specific year, but often between the ages of 50-60 years for the sagittal. Other sutures might close as early as age 18 or as late as age 70. Other sutures in the cranium are lambdoid, coronal, parieto-mastoid, parieto-temporal and baso-occiput with baso-sphenoid.

These sutures separate various bones in the skull. Seven cranial “plates” in all (to use Foerster’s terminology). And not only do they fuse with age, but they also fuse pathologically such as through craniosynostosis. This occurs when one or more sutures fuses early. There are two essential types of craniosynostosis: syndromic (caused by genetic syndromes like Apert, Pfeiffer, and Crouzon) and nonsnydromic (possibly caused by genetics but likely a result of environmental factors).

One of the factors in the environment that affects premature closure and obliteration of the sagittal suture is artificial cranial modification. Christine White [8] found that most of the sagittal synostosis in their sample set was explained by artificial deformation. What White concluded was that the fusion and obliteration of the sagittal suture was a very likely outcome with the “right amount of force and the timing of its application.”

Cranial Capacity is Far Greater Than Humans.

Foerster notes that the cranial capacity of the person he callously hefts for the camera is over 1500 cc and therefore much greater than that of humans. This is not only wrong, but Foerster’s methodology for obtaining a metric like cranial capacity could rightfully be called into question. Mostly because he doesn’t mention how he arrives at that number. But let’s assume he knew what he was doing.

In his 1992 study, J. Philippe Rushton, of the University of Western Ontario, found an average cranial capacity of 1494 cc among men (n=288) in the military [9]. To be an average, there were clearly more than one adult male with over 1500 cc. Burenhult [10] states that the 90% of humans fit in the range 1040-1595 cc, and that the extreme range is 900-2000 cc. Richard Milner [11] says, “Living humans have a cranial capacity ranging from about 950 cc to 1800 cc, with the average about 1400 cc.” Foerster either doesn’t know what he’s talking about (which seems likely) or he does, and he simply perpetuates a lie. The cranial capacity argument is one that Foerster makes over and over again in various videos and social media posts. It’s usually something along the lines of “elongated skulls have cranial capacities that are much greater than humans. In the video above, he states 1500 cc is “25% greater” than a human’s cranial capacity.

First, the skulls he so callously manhandles in his videos are human.
Second, their cranial capacity is not increased.

Samuel George Morton, who collected skulls with a notion that he could prove cranial capacity among white people was

Morton Collection skull from Arica, Chile–Peruvian Period. Courtesy Univ of Penn.

greater than that of people of color, left a rather large collection of skulls with the University of Pennsylvania. Fortunately, this collection’s data has been made available. In that collection I visually picked 34 Peruvian skulls that were visibly deformed or “elongated” as Foerster would say. Most were from Arica, Chile; 3 were from Pisco, Peru; and 2 were from Pachacamac, Peru. While Arica is in Chile, the skulls are from the Peruvian Period and the locality is less than 1,000 km from Paracas.

In using Morton’s “I.C.” metric, I converted from cubic inches to cubic centimeters and the mean cranial capacity was 1277 cc. The largest was 1655 cc for a 70 year old male skull of Arica (Object ID 1366). Still within the ranges given to us by Burenhult and Milner.

All the Better to See You With.

Foerster notes that the “eye-sockets are much larger,” the “nose seems much larger,” and that the “jaw is much larger than normal human beings.”

Perhaps he’s not wrong. It’s difficult to tell from a video and, of course, Foerster does not offer any metrics, show a scale, or provide any sort of comparative analysis. What are the normal ranges for eye-orbits, nasal concha, ethmoid bones, and mandibles? If you’re going to state a specimen exceeds an established norm, it helps to say what that established norm is and how it was established.

Here’s what is known about cranio-facial features among individuals who have undergone ACM deformations.

Prognathism is increased. that is to say, the amount protrusion of of the maxilla and face in general is noticeable. This is a compensatory development and very noticeable among those that practice even moderate degrees of deformation. [12] [13] [14].

A Goalpost that Will Probably Move

In the video, Foerster states, “nobody’s studied this since 1928.”

The context of “this” is clearly “the topic of “elongated skulls” The only other “this” he could have been referring is the specific skull he was showing the camera. That wouldn’t make sense unless Foerster were trying to say that this particular skull was the only one that was unusual. Since he’s been on video and quoted in the texts of his self-published books and social media as referring to many skulls deformed through ACM as “not normal,” etc., it’s safe to say he means “elongated skulls” in general.

But, regardless, the claim is patently and unequivocally false. There have been dozens of studies completed which focus on some aspect of Artificial Cranial Modification. I’ve listed but the barest few below. If anyone ever calls him on this claim directly, he’ll no doubt move the goal post to a specific population or some specific, obscure aspect of ACM.

I cannot imagine Brien Foerster coming clean or admitting that he had “know idea so many people studied this cultural phenomenon. Thanks for the bibliography!” There’s no way a reasoned person could write a book on the topic and not have noticed the plethora of research that includes ACM. He’d either have to be willfully ignorant or grossly incompetent.

To the lay person–that individual who really thinks ancient cultures and their sometimes strange or macabre practices are fascinating–I say don’t let a single person influence what you ultimately believe to be true. Think of what motives or agendas they might have. Challenge them with questions like, “how do you know?” and be willing to let evidence speak for itself. And by evidence, I mean that which can be tested or replicated, and can best explain without creating new, untestable assumptions. Speculation is fine, but that only tells us what could be; not what is.

Oh, and don’t take my word for it. Hold me to those same standards.

Further Reading and Notes:

  1. Tiesler, Vera (2014). The Bioarchaeology of Artificial Cranial Modifications New Approaches to Head Shaping and its Meanings in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Beyond. New York: Springer.
  2. Blackwood, Beatrice; Danby, P.M. (1955). A study of artificial cranial deformation in New Britain. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 85 (1/2), 173-191.
  3. Tiesler, Vera (2014). The Bioarchaeology of Artificial Cranial Modifications New Approaches to Head Shaping and its Meanings in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Beyond. New York: Springer.
  4. Blom, Deborah E. (2005). Embodying borders: human body modification and diversity in Tiwanaku society. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24, 1-24.
  5. Verano, John W.; Uceda, Santiago; Chapdelaine, Claude; et al. (1999). Modified human skulls from the urban sector of the pyramids of Moche, Northern Peru. Latin American Antiquity, 10(1), 59-70.
  6. and many others
  7. Parmar, Pragnesh; Rathod, Gunvanti B. (2012). Determination of Age By Study of Skull Sutures. International Journal of Current Research and Review, 4(20), 127-133.
  8. White, Christine (1996). Sutural Effects of Fronto-Occipital Cranial Modification. American Journal of Anthropology, 100, 397-410.
  9. Rushton, J. P. (1992). Cranial Capacity Related to Sex, Rank, and Race in a Stratified Random Sample of 6,325 U.S. Military Personnel. Intelligence, 16, pp. 401-413.
  10. Burenhult G. (1993). The first humans: human origins and history to 10,000 BC. New York: Harper-Collins.
  11. Milner, Richard (1990). “Cranial Capacity.” The Encyclopedia of Evolution: Humanity’s Search for it’s Origins. New York: Holt.
  12. Cheverud, James M., and James E. Midkiff (1992). Effects of fronto-occipital cranial reshaping on mandibular form. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 87(2):167–171.
  13. Cheverud, James M., Luci A. P. Kohn, Lyle W. Konigsberg, and Steven R. Leigh (1992). Effects of fronto-occipital artificial cranial vault modification on the cranial base and face. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 88(3):323–345.
  14. Anton, Susan (1989). Intentional cranial vault deformation and induced changes of the cranial base and face. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 79:253–267.

About Carl Feagans 344 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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