‘Heart-Shaped’ Cranial Modification Carried Out on Skulls at Ancient Mexican Site of Durango
A funerary deposit in the form of a collective burial of 16 individuals, 8 adults and 8 children, has been uncovered in the architectural complex in Durango. This ancient Mexican site located in the lower northwest of the country also reported the first of its kind cranial modifications, very much intentional, in two of the skulls that resembled a heart shape when looked at from certain angles!
Remains of the Day: Fragmented Skulls and Bones at La Ferreira
According to a press release by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), among the skeletal remains of the 16 individuals who were found under the square plaza floor at Casa Colorada de la Zona Arqueológica de La Ferrería, eight were adults aged between 30 and 40 years old at the time of their demise, while the rest belonged to children aged between 1 and 7 years old. Most of the skeletons were fragmented, but remarkably, three of the adult skulls were well-preserved.
A comprehensive contextual and bioarchaeological analysis was undertaken by a team of experts hailing from esteemed institutions, including the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico, INAH Durango and Sonora Centers, the School of Anthropology and History of Northern Mexico (EAHNM), and the Laboratory of Anthropology and Forensic Dentistry at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
INAH dates the occupation of La Ferrería to the pre-Hispanic era, spanning approximately 600-1350 AD. Within the complex, archaeologists have discovered remarkable remnants, including circular ritual spaces, pyramidal structures, and a ballgame court.
This specific site, corresponding to the period 600-950 AD, covers an expansive area of approximately 6,500 square feet (604 sq meters) and comprises nine rectangular structures surrounding a central square. Previous excavations and numerous burials within the buildings have led researchers to conclude that this location served as a dedicated space for the deceased.
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The complex, from 600-950 AD is located in the upper part of La Ferrería. (INAH National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico)
Intentional Cranial Modification: La Ferreria and Mesoamerican Cultures
The intentional deformation of skulls alters the normal growth of the cranial bones, leading to a variety of distinctive shapes and forms. The technique involves the application of external force to the skull, often achieved through methods like binding between pieces of wood.
Typically, such manipulations were carried out during infancy when the skull is at its most malleable stage. It served various cultural, social, and religious purposes, and each society had its unique methods and reasons for practicing cranial deformation. Cranial deformation served as a marker of identity, social status, and group affiliation among various ancient societies. It played a crucial role in defining beauty ideals and cultural norms, distinguishing one community from another.
Cranial modification prevalent in ancient Mesoamerica shaped beauty ideals and cultural identity in a bygone era. (INAH National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico)
Although this specific practice of deliberate cranial modification had not been reported at La Ferrería before, the intentional deformation of skulls has been documented in various ancient cultures worldwide, including Mesoamerica, which encompasses a significant portion of Mexico and Central America. Remarkably, this practice continues in a few isolated regions globally, reports Newsweek.
Beyond La Ferrería, the practice of cranial deformation was prevalent in other parts of the Americas as well. Among the notable examples is the Paracas culture of Peru, where elongated skulls have been discovered, indicating a similar intentional cranial modification practice. The ancient Chinchorro people of Chile also practiced cranial shaping, dating back to 5000-3000 BC, making it one of the earliest known instances of this custom.
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The Olmec civilization, which thrived from approximately 1400 to 400 BC, is one of the earliest cultures known to have practiced cranial deformation in Mesoamerica. Elongated skulls have been found among Olmec remains, suggesting the custom was significant in their society. The ancient Maya civilization, which existed from around 2000 BC to 1600 AD, engaged in cranial deformation as a marker of social status and beauty. They believed that elongated skulls were aesthetically pleasing and associated with high-ranking individuals.
Top image: Modified skulls unearthed at La Ferrería Archaeological Zone in Durango State, Mexico. Source: INAH National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico
By Sahir Pandey
Georgiou, A. 2023. Ancient Human Remains With Heart-Shaped Skulls Discovered. Available at: https://www.newsweek.com/ancient-human-remains-heart-shaped-skulls-discovered-1815575.
INAH. 2023. They discover multiple burial in the Archaeological Zone of La Ferrería, in Durango. Available at: https://www.inah.gob.mx/boletines/descubren-entierro-multiple-en-la-zona-arqueologica-de-la-ferreria-en-durango.