Artificial cranial deformation

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Proto Nazca deformed skull, c 200-100 BC
Landesmuseum Württemberg deformed skull, early sixth century, Allemannic culture
Painting by Paul Kane, showing a Chinookan child in the process of having its head flattened, and an adult after the process

Artificial cranial deformation, head flattening, or head binding is a form of body alteration in which the skull of a human being is deformed intentionally. It is done by distorting the normal growth of a child's skull by applying force. Flat shapes, elongated ones (produced by binding between two pieces of wood), rounded ones (binding in cloth), and conical ones are among those chosen. Typically, it is carried out on an infant, as the skull is most pliable at this time. In a typical case, headbinding begins approximately a month after birth and continues for about six months.


Elongated skull of a young woman, probably an Alan
Methods used by the Mayan people to shape a child's head

Intentional cranial deformation once was practised commonly in a number of cultures that are widely separated geographically and chronologically and, the practice still occurs today in a few places, like Vanuatu.

Intentional human cranial deformation is believed to predate written history. The earliest suggested examples include the Proto-Neolithic Homo sapiens component (ninth millennium BC) from Shanidar Cave in Iraq,[1][2][3] and also among Neolithic peoples in Southwest Asia.[4] Originally, the Neanderthal skulls found in the Neanderthal component of Shanidar Cave were believed to have been artificially deformed representing the oldest example of such practices by tens of thousands of years, but this later proved to be incorrect. The cranial remains of specimen Shanidar 5 were newly reconstructed in 1999 by the anthropology team of Chech, Grove, Thorne, and Trinkaus where it was discovered the original reconstruction of the skull was in error. As a result the team concluded "we no longer consider that artificial cranial deformation can be inferred for the specimen".[5]

The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BC in a description by Hippocrates of the Macrocephali or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification.[6]

Paracas skulls

In the Old World, Huns also are known to have practised similar cranial deformation.[7] and Alans[8] In Late Antiquity (AD 300-600), the East Germanic tribes who were ruled by the Huns, the Gepids, Ostrogoths, Heruli, Rugii, and Burgundians adopted this custom. In western Germanic tribes, artificial skull deformations rarely have been found.[9]

In the Americas the Maya, Inca, and certain tribes of North American natives performed the custom. In North America the practice was known, especially among the Chinookan tribes of the Northwest and the Choctaw of the Southeast. The Native American group known as the Flathead Indians, in fact, did not practise head flattening, but were named as such in contrast to other Salishan people who used skull modification to make the head appear rounder. Other tribes, however, including the Choctaw,[10] Chehalis, and Nooksack Indians, did practise head flattening by strapping the infant's head to a cradleboard.

The Lucayan people of the Bahamas practised it.[11] The practice also was known among the Australian Aborigines.

Maya modified skull exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México

In The History of Mankind, Friedrich Ratzel reported in 1896 that deformation of the skull, both by flattening it behind and elongating it toward the vertex, was found in isolated instances in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and the Paumotu group and that it occurred most frequently on Mallicollo in the New Hebrides (today Malakula, Vanuatu), where the skull was squeezed extraordinarily flat.[12]

Deliberate deformity of the skull, "Toulouse deformity", band visible in photograph is used to induce shape change

In the region of Toulouse (France), these cranial deformations persisted sporadically up until the early twentieth century;[13][14] however, rather than being intentionally produced as with some earlier European cultures, Toulousian Deformation seemed to have been the unwanted result of an ancient medical practice among the French peasantry known as bandeau, in which a baby's head was tightly wrapped and padded in order to protect it from impact and accident shortly after birth; in fact, many of the early modern observers of the deformation were recorded as pitying these peasant children, whom they believed to have been lowered in intelligence due to the persistence of old European customs.[15] The custom of binding babies' heads in Europe in the twentieth century, though dying out at the time, was predominant in France, and also found in pockets in western Russia, the Caucasus, and in Scandinavia, according to the map on page 46.[16] The reasons for the shaping of the head varied over time and for different reasons, from esthetic to pseudoscientific ideas about the brain's ability to hold certain types of thought depending on its shape (page 51).[17]

Methods and types[edit]

Deformation usually begins just after birth for the next couple of years until the desired shape has been reached or the child rejects the apparatus (Dingwall, 1931; Trinkaus, 1982; Anton and Weinstein, 1999).

There is no established classification system of cranial deformations. Many scientists have developed their own classification systems, but they have not agreed on a single classification for all forms that are seen (Hoshower et al., 1995).

In Europe and Asia, three main types of artificial cranial deformation have been defined by E.V. Zhirov (1941, p. 82):

  • Round
  • Fronto-occipital
  • Sagittal


Cranial deformation probably was performed to signify group affiliation,[18] or to demonstrate social status. This may have played a key role in Maya society.[19] It could be aimed at creating a skull shape that is aesthetically more pleasing or associated with desirable attributes. For example, in the Nahai-speaking area of Tomman Island and the south south-western Malakulan (Australasia), a person with an elongated head is thought to be more intelligent, of higher status, and closer to the world of the spirits.[20]

Meanwhile, it also is possible that the practice of cranial deformation takes its origin in an attempt to emulate those groups of the population in which elongated head shape was a natural condition. For example, Rivero and Tschudi in “Peruvian Antiquities” (1851/1853) describe a mummy containing a foetus with an elongated skull.

Rivero and Tschudi's fetus with naturally elongated head from their 1851 "Antigüedades peruanas"

...the same formation [i.e. absence of the signs of artificial pressure] of the head presents itself in children yet unborn; and of this truth we have had convincing proof in the sight of a foetus, enclosed in the womb of a mummy of a pregnant woman, which we found in a cave of Huichay, two leagues from Tarma, and which is, at this moment, in our collection. Professor D’Outrepont, of great Celebrity in the department of obstetrics, has assured us that the foetus is one of seven months’ age. It belongs, according to a very clearly defined formation of the cranium, to the tribe of the Huancas. We present the reader with a drawing of this conclusive and interesting proof in opposition to the advocates of mechanical action as the sole and exclusive cause of the phrenological form of the Peruvian race.[21]

Dr Bellamy makes a similar observation about the two elongated skulls of infants, which were discovered and brought to England by Captain Blankley and handed over to the Museum of the Devon and Cornwall Natural History Society in 1838. According to Bellamy these skulls belonged to two infants, female and male, "one of which was not more than a few months old, and the other could not be much more than one year”. He writes,

Lithographs of skulls by J. Basire from Bellamy, P. F. A brief Account of two Peruvian Mummies in the Museum of the Devon and Cornwall Natural History Society. in ‘Annals and Magazine of Natural History’. Vol. X, October 1842.

It will be manifest from the general contour of these skulls that they are allied to those in the Museum of the College of Surgeons in London, denominated Titicacans. Those adult skulls are very generally considered to be distorted by the effects of pressure; but in opposition to this opinion Dr. Graves has stated, that “a careful examination of them has convinced him that their peculiar shape cannot be owing to artificial pressure;” and to corroborate this view, we may remark that the peculiarities are as great in the child as in the adult, and indeed more in the younger than in the elder of the two specimens now produced: and the position is considerably strengthened by the great relative length of the large bones of the cranium; by the direction of the plane of the occipital bone, which is not forced upwards, but occupies a place in the under part of the skull; by the further absence of marks of pressure, there being no elevation of the vertex nor projection of either side; and by the fact of there being no instrument nor mechanical contrivance suited to produce such an alteration of form (as these skulls present) found in connexion with them.[22]

Similarly Pentland writes about adult skulls that he excavated near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia in 1827:

A careful examination of these skulls has convinced me that their peculiar shape cannot be owing to artificial pressure. The great elongation of the face and the direction of the plane of the occipital bone are not to be reconciled with this opinion, and therefore we must conclude that the peculiarity of shape depends on a natural conformation. If this view of the subject be correct, it follows that these skulls belonged to a race of mankind now extinct, and which differed from any now existing.[23]

Health effects[edit]

There is no statistically significant difference in cranial capacity between artificially deformed skulls and normal skulls in Peruvian samples.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Persテゥe". 
  2. ^ Trinkaus, Erik (April 1982). "Artificial Cranial Deformation in the in Shanidar 1 and 5 Neandertals". Current Anthropology 23 (2): 198–199. doi:10.1086/202808. JSTOR 2742361. 
  3. ^ Agelarakis, A. (1993). "The Shanidar Cave Proto-Neolithic Human Population: Aspects of Demography and Paleopathology". Human Evolution 8 (4): 235–253. doi:10.1007/bf02438114. 
  4. ^ Christopher Meiklejohn, Anagnostis Agelarakis, Ralph Solecki, Philip Smith, Canada), Peter Akkerman , "On the Origins of Cranial Artificial Deformation in SW Asia", Paleorient, Volume 18 (1992), pp. 83-97; K.O. Lorentz, Ubaid headshaping, in R.A. Carter and G. Philip, Beyond the Ubaid (2010), pp. 125-148.
  5. ^ "Persテゥe". 
  6. ^ Hippocrates upon Air, Water, and Situation: upon Epidemical Diseases, trans. Francis Clifton (1734), pp. 22-23.
  7. ^ Facial reconstruction of a Hunnish woman, Das Historische Museum der Pfalz, Speyer
  8. ^ Bachrach, Bernard S., A history of the Alans in the West: from their first appearance in the sources of classical antiquity through the early Middle Ages, U of Minnesota Press (1973), pp. 67-69
  9. ^ Doris Pany and Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta, Artificial cranial deformation in a migration period burial of Schwarzenbach, Lower Austria, VIAVIAS, no. 2 (Vienna Institute for Archaeological Science 2008), pp. 18-23.
  10. ^ "Choctaw Indian History". Retrieved 2013-06-06. 
  11. ^ "Lucayan–Taíno burials from Preacher's cave, Eleuthera, Bahamas - Schaffer". International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 22: 45–69. 2010. doi:10.1002/oa.1180. Retrieved 2013-06-06. 
  12. ^ Ratzel, Friedrich (1896). "The History of Mankind". MacMillan, London. Retrieved 4 October 2009. 
  13. ^ Delaire, MMJ; Billet, J (1964). "Considérations sur les déformations crâniennes intentionnelles". Rev Stomatol 69: 535–541. 
  14. ^ Janot, F; Strazielle, C; Awazu Pereira, Da Silva; Cussenot, O (1993). "Adaptation of facial architecture in the Toulouse deformity". Surgical and Radiologic Anatomy 15: 1038. doi:10.1007/BF01629867. 
  15. ^ "Chapter II : Later Artificial Cranial Deformation in Europe" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Gerszten and Gerszten, 1995; Hoshower et al., 1995; Tubbs, Salter, and Oaks, 2006.
  19. ^ Gerszten and Gerszten, 1995
  20. ^ Colin Barras (13 October 2014). "Why early humans reshaped their children's skulls". BBC Earth. Retrieved 15 May 2015. 
  21. ^ Rivero and Tschudi, 1854
  22. ^ Bellamy, P. F. A brief Account of two Peruvian Mummies in the Museum of the Devon and Cornwall Natural History Society. in ‘Annals and Magazine of Natural History’. Vol. X, October 1842
  23. ^ Graves, R.J. (1834). "Remarkable skulls found in Peru". The Dublin Journal of Medical and Chemical Science 15. 
  24. ^ Martin Frieß, Michel Baylac (2003). "Exploring artificial cranial deformation using elliptic Fourier analysis of procrustes aligned outlines". American Journal of Physical Anthropology 122 (1): 18. doi:10.1002/ajpa.10286. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 


  • Ellen FitzSimmons, Jack H. Prost, Sharon Peniston, "Infant Head Molding, A Cultural Practice", Arch Fam Med, Vol 7, Jan/Feb 1998
  • Adebonojo, F. O. (1991). "Infant head shaping". JAMA 265: 1179. 
  • Henshen F. The Human Skull: A Cultural History . New York, NY: Frederick A Praeger, 1966

External links[edit]