If you’ve ever spent any time browsing a UFO forum or website, you’ll eventually run into a link or claim that the ancient Mesoamericans and Inca either were aliens (this was a theme exploited by the latest Indiana Jones movie, written by James Rollins), or worshiped aliens as gods. The “proof” is usually a skull much like the one you see depicted here. And it does look like an alien skull! But it’s actually a well-understood process of artificial cranial modification practiced at some point on every populated continent in the world.
The recent issue of Archaeology (Tiesler 2009) has a sidebar that briefly describes the practice of modifying the shape of the human skull by the Maya. 90 percent of the skulls recovered at Maya sites show evidence of being artificially shaped.
Mothers began deforming their children’s skulls shortly after birth by applying devices such as splints, cradleboards, or tightly wound cloth. The practice of head shaping was a regular part of pre-Hispanic life and may have been required for a child’s integration into society, which often took the form of hetz mek, or naming celebrations.
The practice of shaping the head was a body modification that existed from the Preclassic through the Classic periods in Mesoamerica, which ranged from 2000 BCE to 250 CE (Preclassic) and 250 CE to 900 CE (Classic). And was used to show membership in a particular “family or community group.” By the Classic period, the shapes began to take on a variety: slanted like the Maize God‘s head; flattened foreheads; elongated up; formed into two distinctive globes (imagine the general form of a pair of buttcheeks).
From our cultural perspective, the practice seems barbaric and horrible when we consider that this was being done to children without their consent and imposed upon them forcibly. But then, perhaps the same will be said of some of our own practices by future civilizations: “look at how barbaric these people were! They cut the genitalia of infant boys and forced adolescents to wear wired attachments to shape their teeth!”
As modifications to mark social status and rank, the preoccupation with shaping the heads of both males and females among the ancient Maya isn’t really hard to understand, if only because it isn’t the result we find objectionable, but the method of obtaining that result. We can look among each other and see all sorts of pierced tongues and lips, tatoos in painful locations, gold teeth (the Maya were very in to dental modification as well), and so on, each of which are used to promote status or define the individual as his or her own agent.
But did the Maya simply see this as a social practice? Were they only defining themselves as common to a clan or family?
Or were these body modifications a form of worship or a demonstration of piety to their gods? The Maize God is depicted in Maya art as having a slanted head and foliage for hair. As does the Maya ruler, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, the ruler Erich von Daniken claimed was an “ancient astronaut” in his book, Chariots of the Gods?—he incorrectly attributed the design on the lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus as an “astronaut” in his ship’s chair, blasting off to space. Instead this is Pakal descending into Xibalba through the mouth of a serpent. Pakal is shown on his sarcophagus lid and several busts, reliefs, and murals as having a shaped cranium, slanted up and back. The photos below show the Maize God on the left and Pakal on the right.
Also, many examples of Maya art probably weren’t really “art” at all but, rather, a way of revering their gods -depicting them in full regalia. Pakal was the personification of the Sun and Maize Gods on Earth, perhaps in much the same way Egyptian rulers were personifications of gods like Atum and Horus.
Women also based their appearance on the gods (Miller 2009) and they made use of blue pigment, stylized hair, and large, obvious bits of jewelry.
If the Maya modified their appearance out of piety, they also did so out of vanity and were concerned with looking youthful, healthy and elegant. Pakal reached his 80s before dying, but every depiction of him, all the way to the end, shows him to be a young, vibrant man.
Further Reading and Related articles
Miller, Mary (2009). Extreme makeover: how painted bodies, flattened foreheads, and filed teeth made the Maya beautiful. Archaeology, 62 (1), p. 36-42
- Maya King’s Tomb Discovered In Guatemala (lockergnome.com)
- Mayans converted wetlands to farmland (nature.com)
- Extreme archaeology: Divers plumb the mysteries of sacred Maya pools (sciencedaily.com)
- Guatemalan tomb reveals evidence of child sacrifice (independent.co.uk)