Elongated skull of a young woman, probably an Alan.
Landesmuseum Württemberg deformed skull,
early 6th century, alamannic culture.
Painting by Paul Kane, showing a Chinookan child in the process of having its head flattened,
and an adult after the process.
Deliberate deformity of the skull, “Toulouse deformity”.
Band visible in photo is used to induce shape change.
Artificial cranial deformation, head flattening, or head binding is a form of body alteration in which the skull of a human being is intentionally deformed. 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. It is typically 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.
Intentional head moulding producing extreme cranial deformations was once commonly practised in a number of cultures widely separated geographically and chronologically, and so was probably independently invented more than once. It still occurs today in a few places, like Vanuatu.
Early examples of intentional human cranial deformation predate written history and date back to 45,000 BC in Neanderthal skulls, and to the Proto-Neolithic Homo sapiens component (12th millennium BC) from Shanidar Cave in Iraq. It occurred among Neolithic peoples in Southwest Asia.
The Catacomb culture, ca. 2800–2200 BC, refers to a group of related cultures in the early Bronze Age occupying essentially what is present-day Ukraine. The origin of the culture is disputed. Jan Lichardus enumerates three possibilities: a local development departing from the previous Yamna Culture only, a migration from Central Europe, or an oriental origin.
The linguistic composition of the Catacomb culture is unclear, but an Indo-European component is hard to deny, particularly in the later stages. Placing the ancestors of the Greek, Armenian and Paleo-Balkan dialects here is tempting, as it would neatly explain certain shared features.
The culture is first to introduce corded pottery decorations into the steppes and shows a profuse use of the polished battle axe, providing a link to the West. Parallels with the Afanasevo culture, including provoked cranial deformations, provide a link to the East.
The Afanasievo culture is the earliest Eneolithic archaeological culture found until now in south Siberia, occupying the Minusinsk Basin, Altay and Eastern Kazakhstan. It is mainly known from its inhumations, with the deceased buried in conic or rectangular enclosures, often in a supine position, reminiscent of burials of the Yamna culture, believed to be Indo-European.
Settlements have also been discovered. The Afanasevo people became the first food-producers in the area by breeding cattle, horses, and sheep. Metal objects and the presence of wheeled vehicles are documented. These resemblances to the Yamna culture make the Afanasevo culture is a strong candidate to represent the earliest cultural form of a people later called the Tocharians.
The Afanasevo culture was succeeded by the Andronovo culture as it spread eastwards, and later the Karasuk culture.
The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BC in Hippocrates’ description of the Macrocephali or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification.
In the Old World, Huns and Alans are also known to have practised similar cranial deformation. In Late Antiquity (AD 300-600), the East Germanic tribes who were ruled by the Huns, adopted this custom (Gepids, Ostrogoths, Heruli, Rugii and Burgundians). In western Germanic tribes, artificial skull deformations have rarely been found.
In the Americas the Maya, Inca, and certain tribes of North American natives performed the custom. In North America the practice was especially known among the Chinookan tribes of the Northwest and the Choctaw of the Southeast.
The Native American group known as the Flathead did not in fact practise head flattening, but were named as such in contrast to other Salishan people who used skull modification to make the head appear rounder.
However, other tribes, including the Choctaw, Chehalis, and Nooksack Indians, did practise head flattening by strapping the infant’s head to a cradleboard. The Lucayan people of the Bahamas practiced it. The practice was also known among the Australian Aborigines.
The nobility of the Paracas culture practiced skull binding, resulting in cranial deformation. The Paracas situation is somewhat unique in that researchers have found the presence of at least 5 distinct shapes of elongated skulls, each being predominant in specific cemeteries.
The largest and most striking are from a site called Chongos, near the town of Pisco, north of Paracas. These skulls are called “cone heads” by many who see them, because of their literal conical appearance.
Friedrich Ratzel in The History of Mankind reported in 1896 that deformation of the skull, both by flattening it behind and elongating it towards the vertex, was found in isolated instances in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and the Paumotu group and occurring most frequently on Mallicollo in the New Hebrides (today Malakula, Vanuatu), where the skull was squeezed extraordinarily flat.
Deliberate deformity of the skull, “Toulouse deformity”. Band visible in photo is used to induce shape change.
In the region of Toulouse (France) these voluntary deformations were performed until the early twentieth century.
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 none have 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 and Sagittal.
Cranial deformation was probably performed to signify group affiliation, or to demonstrate social status. This may have played a key role in Maya society. It could be aimed at creating a skull shape which 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 Some ancient astronaut theorists believe cranial deformation was a way for ancient peoples to imitate extra terrestrials who visited them.