Artificial Cranial Modification: Head Shaping

Vimont, Engelmann /Scan by NLM - National Library of Medicine (Call No. BF V765t 1835 OV2)
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In addition to cranial surgery, another artificial modification of the human skull present in the archaeological record, which is perhaps better known, is skull shaping. Like trephination, this practice of modifying the shape of the human skull is present on every inhabited continent and at various periods in human history and prehistory ((Ortner, Donald J (2003). Identification of pathological conditions in human skeletal remains, 2nd edition. San Diego: Academic Press)). It even appears in the archaeological record of Neanderthals ((Trinkaus, Erik (1982). Artificial Cranial Deformation in the Shanidar 1 and 5 Neandertals. Current Anthropology, 23 (2), 198-199.)). Like trephination, several hypotheses exist to offer explanations why this practice was done. And, like trephination, the likelihood of a given hypothesis seems to have more or less probability depending upon the culture being examined.

The human skull can be artificially modified either intentionally or unintentionally. Unintentional occurrences usually involve the use of cradle boards, a device used by parents, usually mothers, to manage infants while they perform their own day to day tasks. It can be stood up near the mother or worn on her back. The constant pressure on the occipital bone, especially if the habit of binding the infant to the board is employed, causes lateral growth of the skull and “a permanent effect on the skull.”

A recent study in the Andes examined the cultural aspects of intentional cranial modification in Peruvian society, focusing on regional differentiations between the Moquegua and Katari valleys ((Blom, Deborah E. (2005). Embodying borders: human body modification and diversity in Tiwanaku society. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24, 1-24.)). It was found that, while the fronto-occipital type of cranial deformation was culturally preferred in the Moquegua valley, it was the annular-oblique type that found favor among those in the neighboring Katari valley. The actual presence of cranial modification between the two regions presented no statistical difference. Both valleys were equally likely to practice cranial deformation. The researchers found, however, that when the type of deformation was controlled for, the two valleys completely favored one over the other. It was also discovered that in the capital city of Tiwanaku in the highlands, both types were present. Previous researchers considered the difference in forms at Tiwanaku as representative of differences in class with the annular form belonging to a priestly class. The newer research brings this into question and demonstrates the importance of bioarchaeological approaches to examining social complexity and culture in the ancient world.

Beatrice Blackwood and P. M. Danby (1955) investigated the intentional cranial deformations performed by the people on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. There, the Arawe people practiced head-binding of infants to produce a very characteristic elongation of the cranial vault which varies depending upon the method by which the binding materials are applied to the infant skull ((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.)).

For the Arawe, the practice was “purely an aesthetic one” and had no magico-religious or class motivations associated with it. There were no rituals or or ceremonies involved and appeared to be done simply because it was found aesthetically pleasing

Another inspiration for in vivo cranial modification might be ancestor worship. Perhaps one of the best known instances of ancestor worship that involves skull modification comes from Jericho in the Near East. Fletcher et al ((Fletcher, Alexandra; Pearson, Jessica; and Ambers, Janet (2008). The manipulation of social and physical identity in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic: radiographic evidence for cranial modification at Jericho and its implications for the plastering of skulls. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18 (3), 309-325.)) describe in detail the plastered skulls of Jericho and make a novel correlation between antemortem and postmortem deformations. The skulls they examine originate from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) B period of the Levant at about 10,500 – 8,700 years ago. One of the skulls, in the British Museum was one of seven plastered skulls recovered by Kathleen Kenyon from the in 1953. The PPNB is an important period of human history because it represents a transition from a foraging lifeway to a more sedentary, agricultural one along with a marked increase in population densities and expansions within the Levant.

Caches of skulls like the one that Kenyon recovered in Jericho have been found at other sites, their facial features remodeled in plaster and often painted with cowrie shells added to represent eyes. There is no evidence that the individuals who had their skulls plastered were of high status or elites of the settlements. There is, however, evidence of burials associated with the settlements which had skulls removed while other bodies were dumped unceremoniously in waste pits also associated with the settlements. The number of burials found are not sufficient enough in number to account for the population sizes of these settlements ((Meiklejohn, A. Agelarakis, P. A. Akkermans, P. E. L. Smith, and R. Solecki (1992) Artificial Cranial Deformation in the Proto-Neolithic and Neolithic Near East and its Possible Origin: Evidence from Four Sites. Paléorient 18(2), 83-97.
)) ((Watkins, Trevor (2005). From foragers to complex societies in southwest Asia. In The Human Past. Chris Scarre, (ed.). London: Thames and Hudson, 200-233.)) ((Hole, Frank; Flannery, Kent V.; Neely, James A. (1969). Prehistory and Human Ecology of the Deh Luran Plain. An Early Village Sequence from Khuzistan, Iran. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.)) .

The researchers (Fletcher et al) suggest that the removal, decoration and curation of artificially modified skulls was not a mortuary practice but, rather, a life practice in which these carefully plastered and painted skulls were ritual symbols of the relationship between life and death. To get to this conclusion, they demonstrated that the skulls, thought only to be modified postmortem, were also modified antemortem. Fletcher et al used radiographic analysis to examine the skulls and show that there existed evidence for in vivo cranial modification due to a varied thickness of the inner table of the cranial vault. In non-modified skulls, this thickness is uniform and consistent, but in skulls that have been modified, the thickness varies. They also note the painted stripes across the parietal bones of one skull, which might represent the method of binding the cranium.

Its possible that the skulls were chosen for their morphology – the preference was for crania with “low wide faces and broad vaults,” which happens to be present in many of the culturally modified skulls found elsewhere. While its possible that skulls are chosen based on their sex and part of the veneration of elder males, the fact that plastering obscures characteristics for determining sex means this may not actually be the case. In addition, evidence for the plastering of female and child skulls seems to refute this sort of ancestor cult hypothesis.

Along with the radiographic evidence that the plastered skulls were modified in vivo, there also exists cultural evidence for the aesthetic appeal for certain head shapes in Neolithic iconography by way of figurines that exhibit elongated skulls. Female figurines excavated from Tell Ramad depict an elongated form and at the Late Neolithic to Middle Chalcolithic site of Coga Mish in Iran, three figurines found there were of human heads that exhibit a round frontal view, but are clearly flattened and elongated in the back, consistent with in vivo cranial modification. Indeed they each have a painted black band encircling the head which could represent bandage bindings. Evidence of skull shaping is also present at Ganj darra, Ali Kosh, Choga Safid, and Choga Mish which each produced skulls where the individuals had undergone shaping in vivo by use of bindings as infants and were variously male and female. At Ganj Darra and Choga Safid, each skull excavated had indications of intentional cranial modification. This, when considered that not all skulls were selected for burial, seems to indicate a preference for skulls modified in vivo when it came time for burial, caching and postmortem modifications like plastering.

As Fletcher et al pointed out, the inclusion of females and children as the recipients of antemortem and postmortem modifications would seem to disassociate the practices from ancestor worship. Fletcher et al conclude that, while ancestor worship as an explanation would appear inadequate, the “generalized veneration of ancestral ties may reflect attempts to cope with the social and economic stresses associated with the changing economic and subsistence strategies of the PPNB and the growth of permanent large-scale centres such as Jericho [and] it becomes easier to accept that children a well adults could have assumed a significant role in linking living communities with their past.” The modification of the human skull in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic may very well have been a way of ensuring heredity and kinship within a growing and diversifying population that was becoming increasingly sedentary, which may explain the preference for skulls modified in vivo for postmortem veneration.

Perhaps the former foragers, now agriculturalists, of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic had ancestors within their societies who were considered inspirational leaders and founders of the societies themselves -individuals who were remembered as having skull shapes and sizes that, while not outside the normal range for H. sapiens sapiens, were nonetheless noticeably different. Perhaps, in an attempt to venerate these leaders or founders, or to establish kinship with them, parents began the practice of binding their infants’ heads to ensure this link to the past and to their ancestors. Perhaps something similar can be said for Andean societies in and around Tiwanaku where diversity and ancestry both appeared to be appreciated and venerated. The Arawe, who reported no other reason than aesthetics, may have been creating self-caricatures of an ideal form of an ancestor long forgotten, but still venerated unintentionally.

The true origins of artificial but intentional cranial modifications may never be known or understood and they may, indeed, be as numerous as the number of cultures throughout human history and prehistory that practiced it. But the continued study and attempts to understand this practice can help avoid making unintended assumptions that might affect the conclusions of researchers examining cultures that practiced it. Head shaping may not be a way of exerting dominance over another group or demonstrating elite status; trephination may not simply be a method of releasing spirits and demons.

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About Carl Feagans 398 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.


  1. “For the Arawe, the practice was “purely an aesthetic one” and had no magico-religious or class motivations associated with it. There were no rituals or or ceremonies involved and appeared to be done simply because it was found aesthetically pleasing”

    I wonder how does something become ‘aesthetically pleasing’, according to what social norms and hierarchies of power classifying something as ‘beautiful’ or ‘pleasing’?

  2. I’d say nearly all traditional cranial modification resulted from infant binding in backpack cradles, especially among hill (Andean) and horse peoples (Kushan). Human infants are extraordinarily vulnerable and altricial, but when bound securely to a mother become part of the mother’s security system. Beauty is in the eye of the survivor. Later sedentary agricultural villages reduced the need for this.

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