While the thought of strapping a board or stones to an infant’s head may seem extreme today, it was once common practice. With bandages, cloth, and gentle pressure, infants’ heads were elongated and given a new shape. This act of intentional cranial deformation, or “head flattening,” was practiced on nearly every continent and, amazingly, still exists today.
Where It All Began
For as far back as 45,000 BC, there is recorded evidence of intentional cranial deformation, a practice of intentionally changing the shape of the human skull.
This custom was practiced by a number of North, Central, and South American Indian tribes, particularly before European colonization. Because the bones of a newborn baby’s skull are soft and flexible, deformation usually began just after birth and lasted until the desired shape had been reached or the child rejected the practice.
How It Was Performed
The act of cranial deformation was accomplished by securing cloth or pads around the baby’s forehead. Over time, the gentle pressure of the cloth would change the shape of the skull. One method noted in history utilized a cradleboard with a moveable cover, the pressure of the cover, gently and consistently applied over time, caused the child’s forehead to elongate. This created a nearly smooth silhouette from the tip of the nose to the crown of the head.
It is believed that cranial deformation was performed to indicate group affiliation or to signify social status. By changing the shape of the skull, some felt it was aesthetically more desirable and associated with pleasing attributes. For example, in the Nahai-speaking area of Tomman Island and southwestern Malekula, someone with an elongated head is considered to be smarter, of higher social status, and nearer to the spirit realm.
Cranial deformation may have also occurred to demonstrate elite status. This possibly played a key role in Egyptian society. Both Queen Nefertiti and King Tutankhamen are often depicted with what may be an elongated skull.
While intentional cranial deformation has almost completely disappeared from contemporary cultures, there are still some isolated groups in Africa and South America who continue this practice.
- Artificial cranial deformation. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_flattening.
- Childress DH, Foerster B. The Enigma of Cranial Deformation: Elongated Skulls of the Ancients. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press; 2012.
- Gerszten PC, Gerszten E. Intentional cranial deformation: a disappearing form of self-mutilation. Neurosurgery. 1995;37(3):374-382.
- Head flattening. Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/258067/head-flattening.