About Cranial Modification
One particularly striking aspect of Maya portraiture is the elongated foreheads and faces of both gods and historic figures. This aesthetic was far from just an artistic convention–instead, it depicts deliberate cranial modification. In other words, many Ancient Mesoamericans intentionally shaped their heads to reflect this elongated ideal.
Body modifications such as cranial shaping are not unique to the Maya. Dramatic cranial shaping can be found all over the world. The Mangbetu of Congo, for example, retained a tradition of molding and shaping the skull well into the 20th century. In Mesoamerica, the earliest examples of this practice come from central Mexico, where skulls featuring elongated craniums can be dated as early as 7,000 years ago. By the Olmec period, skull modification is widely attested to in both the art and the archaeological record.
There is no singular factor that totally explains cranial modification in the Maya area. Aesthetics, superstition, myth, and social status likely all had their role. Additionally, cultural meaning shifted over time as different traditions waxed and waned in style. Cranial modification was still being practiced during the colonial period, and so there are contemporaneous records (such as those of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés and Diego De Landa) detailing the phenomenon. From these accounts, we know that there were multiple ways to achieve the elongated look.
Achieving The Look
Two main types of cranial modification have been found in the Maya area. Erect modification features a long flat forehead that points straight upwards, while in oblique modification, the base of the skull stretches horizontally backwards. The reshaping is archaeologically present in both the skulls of both men and women. One purported reason for the modification is that it is an emulation of the maize god (or of maize itself), where an elongated head shape is evocative of a tassled ear of corn. This may be an insufficient analysis, however, as many other gods featured distinctly modified skulls of various types.
Skull modification began at infancy. Therefore, it wasn’t something that individuals chose for themselves, but rather something that was done to them at a very young age. This means that the shaped head reflected the preferences of their family or social group. According to Landa, shaping was sometimes started when the infants were as young as four or five days old. Boards and reeds were sometimes utilized to bind the child’s head, and special restrictive cradles were also reported.
What Did It Mean To Have A Shaped Head?
A paper written in 2011 by William N. Duncan and Charles Andrew Hoffling speculates that the practice of binding an infant’s head might serve as a protective measure. The authors explain that in Mesoamerican thought, newborn’s souls or essences are conceived as still weak and only recently coalesced with their bodies. They are therefore at risk of losing this essence and thus experiencing illness and death. Duncan and Hoffling theorize that the act of binding the head may be a protective measure against the loss of the “soul” or animating force.
The truth is that in spite of several in-depth studies on cranial modification Mesoamerica, there are still many elusive aspects of this practice that are poorly understood. Physically, there seems to be a wide variety in both the shape itself (between erect and oblique) and the intensity of the shaping in any given individual. So far, it’s been difficult for scholars to find consistent distinctions across lines of class or gender, but specific shapes seem to be popular in distinct areas at different times.
In Tiesler’s study on the topic, she mentions that during the Classic period, some regional zones favored oblique deformations, and some erect. This has led to a theory that shape was a marker of ethnic identity between different Maya groups, rather than a marker of social status within a group. Tiesler further posits that this diversity during the Classic period gave way to a more uniform look of high, broad heads in the post-classic.
Other Body Modifications
It is worth noting here that Cranial shaping wasn’t the only form of body modification practiced in the Maya area. Another famous practice was the cosmetic drilling of teeth to include jade gems. Jade was a sumptuary material during the Classic period, meaning that it was only accessible to the elite. We therefore know that this was only practiced among the upper class. Additionally, earlobes were stretched to be able to hold elaborate ear spools or ear plugs, similar to gauge-style earring today.
Cranial shaping has a long, rich history in Mesoamerica, and fittingly traces of its practice can be found across the archeological, artistic, and historical record. Hopefully an even sharper understanding of this tradition will emerge over time, as we continue to unpack its many meanings.
Duncan, William N. and Andrew Hoffling. “Why The Head? Cranial Modification as Protection and Ensoulment Among The Maya” Ancient Mesoamerica 22, no. 1 (Spring 2011), https://www.jstor.org/stable/26309557
Tiesler, Vera. “Studying Cranial Vault Modifications in Ancient Mesoamerica” Journal of Anthropological Sciences 90 (2012), http://www.isita-org.com/jass/contents/2012vol90/tiesler/22781584.pdf
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