The World-wide Mysterious Phenomena Of Elongated Skulls
Societies around the world portray distinct characteristics which define their culture. From the clothes worn; the language spoken and the customs and traditions that are passed from generation to generation, each of these can provide insights into a cultural group. There are, however, a number of universal customs that are practiced on each continent around the globe. They include circumcision, death and burial rituals and cranial deformation. These traditions originated in our remote past. Their purpose and meaning seemingly lost to the sands of time.
It was once believed that head modifications developed in Egypt, and then spread around the world. Researchers have concluded that this phenomenon was not isolated to one geographic area and then disseminated out into the surrounding areas. Instead, this bizarre hallmark of ancient societies sprang up around the world in different cultural groups independently. Many have come to believe it to be an inherent step in the evolution of a group's culture.
Cranial deformation is a distinct and painful tradition. The objective of cranial deformation is to elongate the shape of the head. This procedure, once performed, cannot be reversed. More importantly, individuals who have had the procedure performed, unlike circumcision cannot conceal it. It is a permanent visible marker that identifies not only a cultural group, but also select individuals within that society. When a child is born, the infants head is fashioned or molded into a unique long and slender shape. The simplest method a caregiver employed was to put pressure on, or gently massage the child's head daily until the desired shape is achieved. The second method constrains the child's head in a mechanical device which, over time, will produce the desired elongated shape. Head modifications are always performed during infancy. This is when the cranial bones are still tender and pliable and the sutures between the cranial bones are unfixed. This allows shaping or reshaping the head. But why would a mother or caregiver subject her child to such a painful and ongoing process?
Skulls displaying clear signs of cranial deformation surfaced in the archeological record of the early Neolithic Era starting around 10,000 BCE. The practice of head modifications during the Neolithic era (prior to 5000 BCE) appears episodic. This may be due to the number of individuals who's heads were modified or could be tied to the limited number of remains that have been unearthed. Some of the earliest examples of elongated skulls discovered were unearthed in south-eastern Australia in Coobool Creek and Kow Swamp. Remarkably, finds that date to about the same time were also found in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq. In the eastern highlands of Brazil, a skull was recovered from Confins Cave that dates back to 7566 BCE.
Starting around 5,000 BCE, the tradition of skull modification appears to have expanded. This assumption is based upon the increased number of remains with elongated skulls recovered. Some researchers believe that the convention of cranial manipulation mushroomed as early hunter-gather societies began to coalesce into urban environments. Figurines with deformed crania also begin to appear in the archeological record further supporting the antiquity and distribution of this custom.
In the modern world, the tradition of cranial deformation is often associated with ancient indigenous cultures and not with advanced western civilizations. If it was practiced in the western world, one might assume that it occurred sometime in our remote past and was abandoned by civilized society. This is far from the case. In Europe, researchers, such as neurologist and psychiatrist Achille Foville, documented the practice of cranial deformation in France. Surveying the crania of inmates at a French public asylum, in 1833, he evaluated 431 individuals at the facility. His findings revealed a remarkable 50% of the population with clear signs of deformation, with some of them being considered severe in his estimation.
Regardless of where they have been found, the majority of modified skulls possess striking similarities. Transverse grooves or depressions have been observed on the skulls indicating pressure was applied to the head. These early finds, as well as the many other more recent discoveries, all show clear signs of intentional manipulation and were not the result of genetic or congenital issues.
There are two primary forms of artificial cranial deformation - tabular and circumferential. Tabular cranial modifications involve the compression of the front or front and back of the child's skull by cradle boarding or other cephalic apparatus. It is the most prominent type of deformation found around the world and includes unintentional, yet unnatural, variations to the cranium. After birth, a board is placed on the child's head and is bound in place. This flattens the child's forehead. If the child's head is placed between two boards, both the front and the back and bound, the compression results in a more exaggerated and distinctive head shape. This type of modification causes the skull to expand laterally and superiorly. Garcilaso de la Vega writing in 1609 described the methods used by the inhabitants of certain regions of Peru. He states: "From birth they pressed their children's skull between two planks tied together at the ends, which they tightened a little every day... After three years, a child's skull was deformed for life, so they removed the apparatus."