Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In a Bind

By Alli Sinclair

Billions of dollars, perhaps trillions, are spent every year on hair products and styling. It’s a lucrative industry and is a classic example of us humans obsessing over our noggins. This fascination isn’t new. In fact, the ancient world took this one step further—by altering their skulls.

Head binding, also known as artificial cranial deformation, dates back to 45,000 BC. The ancient Egyptians, Syrians, Maltese, Russians, Germans, and Australian Aborigines have all undertaken various forms of skull “enhancement” by binding their skull or placing cradleboards around a baby’s head to change the shape of their head.

Zip over to the Americas, and you’ll find the Mayans, Incas, and the tribes of the Chinookan and Choctaw people in North America also undertook the custom of deforming skulls as part of their culture. The Choctaw, Chehalis, and Nooksack Indians practised head flattening and on the coastal of Peru, not far from Lima, the Paracas culture had an array of altered head shapes.

Scientists have discovered at least five different shapes of elongated skulls in different cemeteries in the Paracas region. The most remarkable being a site called Chongos, not far from the quaint town of Pisco where the famous cone-shaped skulls were discovered.

Archaeologists specialising in the Mayans have discovered how altered skulls vary, depending on their geography. Skulls found in the lowlands had a slanted appearance, while skulls discovered in the highlands had an erect shape. They’ve even unearthed skulls that have a division down the middle and two distinct holes. The Mayans believed that every object has an essence, including the elements. While the mother was giving birth, the Mayans ensured the house was closed so the evil wind couldn’t harm the baby and as the baby’s soul was no yet tethered to the baby, the infants were even more vulnerable. Binding the baby’s head was akin to creating a roof over one’s head, and therefore a form of protection for the young child that would stay with it forever.

Some archaeologists believe the act of altering one’s skull was to create a “desirable” shape to make the person more aesthetically pleasing and on Tomman Island in Vanuatu, where it is still practised today, elongating the skull signifies intelligence and being closer to spirits. Whether it was for social status, such as an Incan nobleman, or for an affiliation with a tribe, the act of altering one’s skull causes great controversy in the archaeological world and certainly makes for some interesting discussions. Whatever the reasons, humans have always taken great care to alter their bodies, including their hair and head. So next time you go to the hairdresser, be careful what you ask for!


  1. Okay, Alli, thank you for my official Wednesday weirding out! I honestly did not know any of that. so I guess this means that those elongated skulls in that terrible Indy movie probably weren't from aliens, then? ;)

  2. Well, it depends who you talk to about the alien angle. :-) And it is my pleasure to weird you out on a Wednesday!

  3. Quite an amazing post, Alli. I've never known about this obviously long-standing, geographically diverse practice. Thanks.