An intentionally deformed skull from 4th-century CE France. Image Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap
The practice of intentional cranial deformation is perhaps best known from Mesoamerica. But deliberately reshaping the skulls of infants when their bones are soft and fontanelles open was a widespread practice. It has been recorded on nearly every continent in many different cultures over tens of thousands of years. The malleable heads of neonates were bound with leather or textile bandages, flattened with boards or pads. Sometimes infants were restrained in custom cradleboards so that over months—sometimes years—their heads grew into the preferred shape: flat on top, flat on the back, flat on the sides, conical, elongated, or rounded.
As far-reaching a practice as it has been for all of human history and much of prehistory, intentionally deformed skulls still engender regular "Alien!" "Bizarre!" "Weird!" headlines whenever they are found because of their striking appearance. Here is a quick world tour of cranial deformation throughout the ages.
1. AUSTRALIA, 13,000–9000 YEARS AGO
The skulls of Pleistocene-epoch Australians with flattened occipital bones have been found at Kow Swamp (northern Victoria), Nacurrie (northwest Victoria/southwest New South Wales), and Coobool Creek (southwest New South Wales). Anthropologist and professor of human anatomy Alan Thorne believed the size and shape of the skulls were evidence that pre-sapiens Homo erectus was still alive and kicking in Australia "as recently as 10,000 years ago." Later analysis disproved Thorne's theory. The people with flat skulls were Homo sapiens, all right; they'd just had constant pressure applied to their foreheads from infancy.
2. PERU, 7000–100 BCE
The earliest examples of intentionally deformed skulls in the Americas were found in Peru and date to between 7000 and 6000 BCE. The practice put down deep roots in Peru, spreading throughout Andean communities and the rest of the continent from there. Excavations of ancient Peruvian remains have found that a vast majority of them—as many as 90 percent on some digs—have deformed skulls.
A group of skulls about 2500 years old, discovered in the 1920s in the Paracas peninsula of Peru by archaeologist Julio C. Tello, were so extremely elongated they've been featured in the fever dreams of the "I'm not saying it's aliens, but it's aliens" crowd ever since. There was even a claimed DNA study of the Paracas skulls that made headlines all over the world in 2014 for its ostensible confirmation that the skulls could not possibly be human. While the Paracas peoples did have extraordinary abilities—see the unparalleled beauty and complexity of their textiles, for example—they were decidedly human, and Homo sapiens at that. They were just extremely adept at flattening the frontal bones of babies' skulls.
3. UKRAINE, 2800–2200 BCE
The Bronze Age Catacomb culture in modern-day Ukraine is named after its burial chambers which were dug at the bottom of a vertical shaft. Skeletal remains found in those graves bear the telltale marks of intentional cranial deformation—the earliest identified instance of it in the Eurasian steppes. Researchers believe they may have picked up the practice from the earlier Afanasevo culture which inhabited what is now Siberia from 3300 to 2500 BCE, moving it westward. After the Catacomb culture died out, there is no evidence of cranial reshaping in the archaeological record of the steppes until the Iron Age (700–500 BCE).
4. FRANCE, 4TH CENTURY CE
In 2013, archaeologists unearthed a series of burial grounds in Obernai, in the northeastern French province of Alsace, dating from the Neolithic (4900–4750 BCE) through the Merovingian (5th–8th century CE) period. In one of 18 graves dating to the same time period were the skeletal remains of a woman with an ovoid skull (top image). Coupled with the style and richness of the grave goods, the shape of the skull identified her as an Alan, a people who originated in the North Caucasus but fled west during the Hunnish invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries. They too practiced intentional cranial deformation, tightly binding infants' heads with bandages that applied equal pressure to the front and back of skulls. Archaeologists believe it was a process reserved for the Alan societal elite, as the ovoid crania have only been found in graves accompanied by elaborate grave goods.
5. HUNGARY, 5TH–6TH CENTURY CE
Artificially deformed crania from the Ároktő Csík-gát site in northeastern Hungary. Image credit: Molnár et al. in Neurosurgical Focus
The Alans that were chased west by the Huns (their onetime allies against the Romans) probably gave the Huns the idea to start altering their babies' skull shapes, perhaps as early as the 2nd or 3rd century CE when they were neighbors in the Carpathian Basin. More than 200 artificially deformed skulls dating to the 5th to 6th century CE have been found in what is now Hungary. The extent and type of deformations vary significantly, from extreme reshaping of the entire skull to minor alterations.
6. KOREA, 4th CENTURY CE
The archaeological site of Yean-ri, in southeastern South Korea, is an ancient burial ground of the Gaya Confederacy from the 4th century CE. Out of the 300 graves unearthed there, only a third of them had surviving skeletal remains. This is actually a relative bonanza for Korea, where the acidic soil and cycles of hot and wet, cold and dry weather wreak havoc on organic materials. Out of the 100 surviving skeletons, 20 percent of them were found to have intentionally deformed skulls. The main emphasis was on the flattening of the frontal bones of the Yean-ri skulls, with some small counterforce applied to the back of the skulls.
Of particular interest is that the burial ground, which includes an unusual variety of grave types (stone sarcophagi, jar burials, and wooden chambers) was used to inter commoners—the regular Joes of the Gaya period. This practice is attested by their modest grave goods. While many examples of intentional cranial deformation in other cultures were used to denote high status, wealth, or belonging to an elite subset of society, that does not appear to be the case at Yean-ri. It also confirms an account of the Gaya recorded in the 3rd century CE Chinese chronology the Records of the Three Kingdoms by Jin dynasty court historian Chen Shou.
7. MEXICO, 900–1200 CE
Cristina García / INAH
Almost 4000 miles northwest of Paracas, Peru, and 1100 years later, in the town of the Onavas, in what is today the Mexican state of Sonora, 25 people were laid to rest in a cemetery during the Late Classic Mesoamerican period. Other burials in Sonora were found under or around dwellings. This burial ground, excavated by archaeologists in 2012, is the earliest dedicated graveyard found in the state. The unique opportunity to examine a group of skeletons at one site revealed that more than 50 percent of them, 13 of the 25, had intentionally deformed skulls. They're the first of their kind discovered in either Sonora or, across the modern border, in the American southwest.
The skull shapes were remarkably extreme, considering the practice had never been found before in the region. They were subject to fronto-occipital deformation, meaning flat planks, or possibly cradleboards, were bound to the front and back of the skull to flatten and elongate the head. Added to that, the bones on the side of the skull were flattened at an angle, giving the cranium a V shape (and breathless reporters everywhere the opportunity to talk aliens again).
8. ENGLAND, 17TH CENTURY CE
Technically, this skull was found in Paris, but that's just because the young man in question was studying there. Thomas Craven was English from a wealthy noble family. His father Sir William was Lord Mayor of London in 1610. His two brothers were barons. He was 17 or 18 years old when he died in Paris of the plague in 1636. Thomas Craven's body was embalmed, placed in a lead coffin and buried in a Protestant cemetery in the Paris suburb Saint-Maurice.
It was found during an archaeological dig in 1986 and identified by a loving Latin inscription on a copper plaque welded to the coffin describing young Thomas as "a model of good behaviour." Not mentioned on the plaque but discovered during osteological examination was that Thomas Craven had an artificially elongated cranium. The long skull was considered to give the face an elegant slimness that was still fashionable in early 17th-century London society, a thousand years after the trend petered out among the Germanic peoples of the continent.
In 2015, a 3D facial reconstruction was made from a scan of Thomas Craven's skull, as you can see in the video above. The extended skull can still be perceived even after the dashing long hair is added.
9. DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO, 18TH CENTURY CE
Mangbetu mother and child, 1930s. Image Credit: Lewis Cotlow
The Mangbetu people in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa elongated the skulls of their infants by wrapping them with bands of giraffe hide, rope or cloth. As the child grew, the binding would be changed to fit the larger dimensions while still ensuring the skull achieved the desired elongated shape. The practice was considered an art form. The distinctive shape of the head was a mark of intelligence, status, and beauty, and was emphasized by the styling of hair—braids coiled around the head—and accessories, like basketry-frame headdresses. It was also a frequent motif in Mangbetu decorative arts, such as their anthropomorphic pottery, knife handles, and arched harps called donnu.
The practice continued well into the 20th century, dying out in the 1950s under the influence of European culture and legal pressure from the colonial Belgian government.
10. PACIFIC NORTHWEST, UNTIL THE 20th CENTURY CE
Flathead woman with child by Paul Kane, ca. 1848, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
It's not certain when the Chinookan people of the Columbia River in what are now the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon began to flatten the skulls of their infants, but by the time Lewis and Clark trundled along in 1805, the practice was deeply ingrained in the culture. Chinookan society was highly stratified and slaveholding. Binding a baby to a cradleboard ensured it would be marked for life as coming from a "good family," and would not be enslaved as an adult.
It was not just a status symbol, but a clear dividing line of caste. Orphans, children from "bad families," and slaves were excluded from the practice, and were treated with contempt because of it. When the Europeans arrived and Chinook women had babies with white men, rates of infanticide spiked when fathers refused to submit their children to cranial deformation—mothers would rather kill their children than allow them to be seen as slaves.