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 368 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.

8 Comments

  1. I have yet to see an example that was inexplicably placed (the foramen magnum). If you have a link to detailed photographs showing an example, I’d sure like to see it.

  2. Never mind it seem that the Foramen Magnum is in the same spot. It’s just the back of the skull is squished toward the front of the skull but the Foramen Magnum is still in the same spot by the jaw.

  3. I’m looking for a archeologist’s comment on this for a while, thanks.

    I think the usual story that it is just cranial deformation does not work without problems. Reasons:

    [a] Swiss researcher J.J. Tschudi comes to a somewhat similar conclusion than Foerster in his mid-19. centuries studies. See http://bit.ly/1IhRkwr , chapter II for an english version. He focuses on skull sutures, too, and describes a case of a fetus found in the whom of a mummified mother. He seems much more cautious and thorough than Foerster. Tschudi thinks its “silly” that his colleagues believe this is cranial deformation and he claims to have identified three distinct races apart from the natives in the area.

    [b] Foerster claims strongly that the newest biochemical studies show that his elongated skull mummies are not related to other natives of the area (by blood type, hair color and other DNA traits)

    [c] His elongated skulls simply do look significantly different (i.e. the larger brain volume seems apparent) than the cranial deformed samples from all the papers on the subject I have seen. For whatever reasons there are no good studies on the type of samples or exactly the samples he talks about (that he himself is obviously very sloppy at describing the samples is a different story). People might have used other “skull enhancement methods” that are completely unknown to us, but this would be something worth investigating (but archaeologists don’t for whatever reason).

    [d] I am not an archaeologist, but to me it seems that the south Peruvian area is one of the most puzzling archaeological areas (e.g. the tight brickwork Foerster shows on his tours). It wouldn’t come as such a big surprise that some “very distinct” people were the builders.

    [e] Elongated skulls are obviously some kind of beauty ideal; who was setting this trend? Maybe people with particularly large heads and elite capabilities? (This is just some speculation)

  4. a) The Tschudi case is interesting, but as far as I know the remains are no longer available for examination. So what we have is the singular, 19th century description. I’ve yet to read much of Tschudi’s work or about him, but I do know that 19th century “science” comes with a lot of baggage (various racial biases) that one actually gets a wiff of from the likes of Foerster and others who seem determined to find any European (or alien?) explanation for all that is cool in the world–as long as it didn’t originate from people of brown skin and brown origins.

    Tschudi’s example of the fetus in the womb might be a problem if it were a set of remains we could look at today and conclude it to be such. It is more likely a case that the mother and newly born child died close together in time and the baby either *appeared* to be in the womb or was placed in this position for some afterlife rebirth superstition.

    But, even if we were to take the account at face value, wouldn’t we expect to see other examples of the same? This is part of the reproducibility of science.

    b) Foerster and his “team” (they’ve recently dumped him, by the way) have some very serious problems with their methods. Contamination is not only possible, but highly probable given what they’ve shown so far.

    c) There are plenty of studies of skulls that fit the same description of his “elongated” variety. It is nothing more than artificial cranial modification. A practice performed almost immediately following birth. “Brain volume seems” is not an objective statement. Looks can be deceiving (no offense intended). The best thing to do is start with quantifiable measurements then invite replication. He often says things like “this skull is xx% larger than a normal human,” but he never, ever gives the figure in precise measurements for either the ACM skull or what he thinks is normal human range.

    d) I think the people of the region are definitely very distinct. Their ancestors of the people that reside there now have much to be proud of. These were a people that had a complex, stratified civilization that was, in many respects, very cosmopolitan in that they traveled from region to region and exchanged cultural goods like art as much as they did trade commodities. These were human beings. Their antiquity doesn’t imply lower IQ than that of modern humans. They display much the same skill at stone masonry as their European counterparts did of the same period (roughly 800 CE or so).

    e) This is a practice that occurred all over the world, on every populated continent, and at varied periods of prehistory and history. It may even still be happening in Melanesia and some African countries. If not, it certainly happened in the 20th century in these places.

    My personal hypothesis (more of a speculation) is that the practice is related to the human tendency to caricacturize people and ideas. We often get an ontological notion of what a certain quality must be and exaggerate it if asked to reproduce it. Especially when imitating others (think of impersonators of Elvis or Sammy Davis, Jr.). It may be that the practice is about impersonating an ancestor in its origin, the resulting skull obviously changed but not to the extreme until many generations later as the original purpose is forgotten, replaced by the need to uphold tradition–but just a little bit better than before.

    Or it may simply be that an ancestor had a natural cranial deformation (Hydrocephalus, craniosyntosis…) and, because of superstition, that person was venerated. Even considered wise. And then the ancestor veneration is back. Or there may be as many explanations as there are cultures that practiced it.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Thanks for the elaborations.You made me order Tiesler’s book btw…

    People like Foerster, von Däniken or Hancock depict archaeology as a field where there is a lot of effort to explain the mundane in detail, whereas the extreme cases of evidence is usually overlooked. What bothers me in the elongated skull debate is that all the paper I read exemplify exactly this point: they pick specimen where it is abundantly clear that cranial deformation was practiced.

    I have a background in physics and science studies. In physics it is usually the case to focus on extreme scenarios: Newton’s mechanics did not work on a planetary scale and that brought us general relativity. And it does not work on a sub-atomic level, that brought us quantum mechanics.

    Why is there no good scientific study about the most extreme Peruvian elongated skulls? (Or did I miss them?) With the name of a good American or European university in the background I assume that the authorities are at least as willing to grant researchers access than they are with Foerster and friends.

    The same seems to be the case for the brick work in the close area. I find a lot of papers on how they did the rather mundane stuff, but not much on the outstandingly elaborated techniques of e.g. the lower level structures at Machu Picchu.

    In physics there is the so called ‘No Alternative Argument’ to support e.g. string theory. It means that, if we have no good alternative explanation, then we should work on one that may even seem far-fetched (e.g. aliens, Biblical stories). This may not apply to Foerster’s skulls, if all of his empirical claims turn out to be wrong, but it seems to me that the pseudoarchaeological card is played too often by mainstream professionals of the field.

  6. I think the answer for the questions you have about the skulls and the stonework is a question itself. Namely, what, then, is the research question?

    You have an unusual skull in front of you and you understand what is already known about human migration, human physiology, the practice of ACM (artificial cranial modification), etc. What question do such skulls pose for you?

    For the trained archaeologist, ethno-archaeologist, paleoanthropologist, etc., the questions might be: “why do there appear to be discreet types of shapes formed through the practice of ACM?” Or, “why are some people practicing it and others are not?” Perhaps you’re wondering if the are socio-cultural correlations or socio-religious ones?

    The reason such people don’t wonder if these are “nephilim,” or spacemen is quite simply that there’s no good reason to speculate on such things. How would one design a test that had controls for either of these preposterous (albeit possible) scenarios? There are no known samples of “nephilim” or aliens available to compare with, nor is there any reason to expect them to be.

    A research question could be, “how many of these are naturally born with deformed skulls?” Hydrocephalus and craniosysntosis really do exist and really do cause abnormalities in the skull. But both of these afflictions have well-recognizable markers.

    We already know that the practice of artificially modifying the skull happened in antiquity. Children born with natural skull deformities (hydrocephalus and craniosyntosis) exhibit signs of the affliction during or soon after birth.

    So, when faced with a population (or a portion of a population) that has skull shapes that are elongated, Occam’s razor dictates that the best answer is the one that introduces the fewest new assumptions. If we assume that the practice of head-binding and other methods of ACM are at work, then what new assumptions must we introduce? There aren’t many.

    If, however, we assume that even *some* are born in this manner, then there are a lot of new assumptions. And all of the assumptions begin with: since signs of craniosyntosis and hydrocephalus aren’t present, something else must cause the elongation in vitro.

    This is an interesting proposition, but Foerster, Marzulli, et al *begin* with this as a conclusion, not a proposition or even an hypothesis!

    Nor is there anything in the skeletal record to indicate that such a premise is warranted.

    So that brings us back to “what is the mystery? What is the research question?”

    When asked, LA Marzulli didn’t have one.

  7. That’s interesting, imho you exemplify a common strategy of reasoning among archaeologists. You start with what we know about ancient societies (practiced ACM, other cultural habits etc.) Then you infer that a somewhat new phenomenon (extremely deformed skulls) have to be explained by what seems the best solution on the basis of what we already now (“Ockhams Razor”) without showing this by a detailed analysis of the specimen.

    Tschudi concluded under careful analysis that it is totally ridiculous to believe that ACM is the sole reason for the elongated skull and Foerster’s specimen look very similar to the ones Tschudi talks about.

    That is why I put forward the comparison with physics. Influential philosophers of science like Karl Popper or Paul Feyerabend defended the idea that in science you should make highly unintuitive claims (e.g. ancient aliens, bending space-time) as long as they can be corroborated or falsified via empirical analysis.

    Tschudi’s new races or LA Marzulli’s nephilims are exactly that: daring hypotheses that can be empirically scrutinised for further corroboration/falsification. — I take Tschudi much more serious btw.

    Tschudi and Foerster/Marzulli try to find good evidence for their hypotheses. The mainstream archaeologists’ task is very easy in this: can all phenomena that the paracas skulls show be explained by ACM and medical conditions of the common native Americans in the area? And the recent DNA analyses, Tschudi’s description of the sutures and the skull shapes give some reason to doubt that.

    But I know from personal experience that it is quite common among scientists (these days) to focus on what we believe to know well and add some small adjustments to it. Philosopher Thomas Kuhn describes this as the normal phase of science under a ‘paradigm’.

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