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The story behind deformed ancient skulls

Artificial cranial deformation, head flattening, or head binding is any practice of intentionally deforming the skull of a human being. 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.

Usually it is a part of a cultural ritual, aimed at creating a skull shape which is aesthetically more pleasing or associated with desirable attributes such as intelligence. For example, in the Nahai-speaking area of Tomman Island and the south south-western Malakulan, a person with a finely elongated head is thought to be more intelligent, of higher status, and closer to the world of the spirits.

Intentional head molding producing extreme cranial deformations was once commonly practiced worldwide. Although rarer today, it is still prevalent in very few groups, like the Vanuatu. It is a form of permanent body modification.

The earliest known culture to bind their children’s heads were the ancient Egyptians of the third millennium BC. The Egyptian King Tutankhamen had an elongated head.The Culture Herp Ambat is associated with the origin of headbinding in certain coastal areas of southern Malakula, Vanuatu. Ambat himself had an elongated head and a fine, long nose. Head elongation styles vary slightly among the many different language and cultural areas of southern Malakula. The area where people have the longest elongated heads is the Nahai-speaking area of Tomman Island and the south south-western Malakulan mainland opposite. A person with a finely elongated head is thought to be more intelligent, of higher status and close to the world of the spirits. Even today, throughout Vanuatu, the Bislama/Pidgin English term, Longfala Hed (Long Head) is synonymous with intelligence.

On Tomman Island and the facing south south-western Malakula mainland, headbinding began approximately a month after birth. Each day the child’s head was smeared with burnt paste made from the Navanai-Molo nut (from the candle nut tree). This process softens the skin and prevents ‘binding rash’. The child’s head was then bound with Ne’Enbobosit, a soft bandage made from the inner bark of a type of banana tree. Over this was placed a No’onbat’ar (specially woven basket) made from Nibirip (pandanus) and this was bound around with the Ne’euwver (fibre rope). This process continued every day for approximately six months to produce the required shape.

Early examples of intentional human cranial deformation predate written history and date back to 45,000 BCE in Neanderthal skulls, and to the Proto-Neolithic Homo sapiens component (12th millennium BCE) from Shanidar Cave in Iraq, as well as of Neolithic sites in SW Asia. Extreme practices have seemingly not persisted into this century, but mild forms are still practiced by various groups worldwide.

Skulls from the Andean Paracas culture.The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BCE in Hippocrates description of the Macrocephales people who were named for their practice of cranial modification.

The practice was also known among the Australian Aborigines, Maya, and certain tribes of North American natives, most notably the Chinookan tribes of the Northwest and the Choctaw of the Southeast.

In the Old World, Huns are also known to have practiced 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.

The Native American group known as the Flathead did not in fact practice 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 practice

head flattening by strapping the infant’s head to a cradleboard. 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, where the skull was squeezed extraordinarily flat.

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.Cranial deformation was probably performed to signify group affiliation or to demonstrate social status. This may have played a key role in Egyptian and Mayan societies. Queen Nefertiti is often depicted with what may be an elongated skull, as is King Tutankhamen.

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