East Asian, Native American, Hun and Scythian practices: Artificial deformation of the skull

The earliest recorded evidence of artificial cranial modification dates to 45,000 BC in Neandertal skulls from the Shanidar Cave in Iraq (see Fig. 2.1, Trinkaus, 1982).

The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BC in Hippocrates’ description of the Macrocepahes people who were named for their practice of cranial modification (Gerszten and Gerszten, 1995).

Chinese records mention that in the 3rd century, the people of Chen-Han (Jinhan) in Korea practiced cranial deformation, and this is confirmed by skulls unearthed in the Kaya/Gaya region (see Pusan National University Museum page):

“about 30% of the Yean-ri women buried in the early 4th century site had the indications of pyeondu (“frontal cranial deformation”). The pyeondu custom is a kind of the cranial deformation custom to make a deformed head shape by pressing the forehead with a wooden board or stone since infancy. It is known that this custom was a unique custom of Byeonhan and Jinhan because it also corresponds to the article about Byeonhan and Jinhan in Sanguozhi Weishu Dongyizhuan: it says that “all the Jinhan people have a deformed skull as before because their heads were pressed with stones during their infancy.”

” … the same practice of nursing the child and carrying it about, bound to a flat cradle-board, prevailed in Britain and the north of Europe long before the first notices of written history reveal the presence of man beyond the Baltic or the English Channel, and that in all probability the same custom prevailed continuously from the shores of the German Ocean to Behring’s Strait.” (“Smithsonian Report,” 1862, p. 286.)

Skull flattening was observed of the Proto-Neolithic Homo sapiens component (12th millennium BCE) from Shanidar Cave in Iraq.[Trinkaus, Erik (April 1982). "Artificial Cranial Deformation in the in Shanidar 1 and 5 Neandertals". Current Anthropology 23 (2): 198–199. doi:10.1086/202808. JSTOR 2742361; A. Agelarakis, "The Shanidar Cave Proto-Neolithic Human Population: Aspects of Demography and Paleopathology", Human Evolution, volume 8, no. 4 (1993), pp. 235-253] as well as among the Neolithic peoples of SW Asia

Skull flattening was observed of ancient Sumerian peoples of the Al-Ubaid period (see p. 312 of Taxila). John Marshall’s “Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization” as well as “Anthropology” (by Ram Nath Sharma, Rajendra Kumar Sharma) in addition to Al-Ubaid burials, wrote that cranian deformation features were also seen of skulls of Kish; Ur of Mesopotamia; Additanallur in Madras; Veddahs of Ceylon(Sri Lanka); Naga of Calcutta; jar burials of Harappa; Mediterranean; Nal in Baluchistan; Sialkot in Punjab; and Bayana (Aryan skulls) in Uttar Pradesh.

Brachycephalic skulls were also reported of the Okunev Culture from amongst the “Cultures and Ethnic Groups West of China in the Second and First Millennia B.C.”,

“IN the northern zone, the progressive cultures with incipient metallurgy are Krotovo and Samus’ (between the Rivers Ob and Irtys) as well as Okunev in the Minusinsk Basin, an island of steppe on the Upper Yenisei surrounded by forested mountains (Molodin 1977). Examples of pottery with affinities to these cultures are said to have been observed in Inner Mongolia on Chinese territory (Clenova 1977; KK 1964[1]: 2). Engravings where found on stone slabs which were used as building- material in burials of the Okunev Culture. Two stylistic groups can be discerned: a realistic one, representing bulls and men with bird-masks, and a schematic one, the essential motifs of which are a horned mask with three eyes and a symbol of the sun (a ring with four tips). …The realistic style could possibly be derived from the south of Central Asia (Matjuscenko 1977). The schematic one may possibly have a relation to “cryptic magic,” which was presumed to have been the background of some painted designs of the Yangshao Culture in Kansu (Chang 19777:110-132; cf. Formozov 1969: 109, 194).

The affinities are significant, since there is a Mongoloid component of Central Asian origin in the Okunev population (brachycephalic skulls) (Ivanova 1966). Within the framework of this northern complex, a center of bronze casting and metal trade arose that later influenced Eastern Europe….”. …

In Khalcajan, a dynastic sanctuary of the Kushans, a relief of high artistic value displays a solemn act of alliance. The men of one of the participating groups were characterized by Pugacenkova (1971) as follows:

There is a marked, artificially inflicted deformation of the skull, particularly noticeable in side-view: the occiput is flat, the receding forehead bulges in a triangle over the bridge of the nose, lending a rather stern look to the faces of the men, young and aged alike. The faces are thin, the straight nose is not large. The dark eyes of average size have no trace of epicanthus, but their corners are outlined in black towards the temples; this, coupled with the high cheek-bones, lends the faces a certain “Tartar” look. The specific trimming of the black hair does not occur among other ancient peoples: the hair, bound by a strap, rises over the forehead, is combed away from the ears and clipped below them: the small arrow-shaped moustache frames the upper lip: there are side-whiskers. …

Pugacenkova compared the sculptured heads of the first group (evidently those who were in a somewhat superior social position) with the face on the coins of Heraos, who was of Yueh-chih origin and who is considered to be the ancestor of the early Kushan kings. She thinks that fraternization between the nomad invaders and the Bactrian nobility of Iranian origin belonged to the political aims of Heraos, and that his success in this respect is depicted here.

In my opinion, the main scene could even portray a double marriage which united a local dynasty with that of Heraos. This would explain how the Bactrian language prevailed over the idiom of the immigrants”

“T’ao-hung-pa-la may really represent an early stage of Hsiung-nu-Culture. The predominance of Western (from Altai and Tuva) and northern elements (from the Slab Grave culture mentioned earlier) is striking, and may have produced conditions where the Hsiung-nu were able to make the transition from the tribe to state earlier than their neighbors in regions farther to the east, such as the Hsien-pi. In addition, as is known from the historical sources, the Hsiung-nu were strongly influenced by the Yueh-chih, who lived at their southwestern borders. Embroideries on a tapestry found in Noin-Ula but only preserved in fragments (Rudenko 1962/1969, pl LX-LXIX) show male heads similar to those of the Heraos family. “

Nazca SkullCredit: Didier Descouens, Creative CommonsA deformed skull dating to between 200 B.C. and 100 B.C. and belonging to an individual of the Nazca culture, which flourished along the Peruvian coast

Nazca SkullCredit: Didier Descouens, Creative Commons A deformed skull dating to between 200 B.C. and 100 B.C. and belonging to an individual of the Nazca culture, which flourished along the Peruvian coast

Dr. L. A. Gosse testifies to the prevalence of the same custom among the Caledonians and Scandinavians in the earliest times; and Dr. Thurman has treated of the same peculiarity among the Anglo-Saxons. Crania Britannica,” chap. iv., p. 38.)

Here, then, is an extraordinary and unnatural practice which has existed from the highest antiquity, over vast regions of country, on both sides of the Atlantic, and which is perpetuated unto this day in races as widely separated as the Turks, the French, and the Flat-head Indians. Is it possible to explain this except by supposing that it originated from some common centre?

The following heads are from Del Rio’s “Account of Palenque,” copied into Nott and Gliddon’s “Types of Mankind,” p. 440. They show that the receding forehead was a natural characteristic of the ancient people of Central America. The same form of head has been found even in fossil skulls. We may therefore conclude that the skull-flattening, which we find to have been practised in both the Old and New Worlds, was an attempt of other races to imitate the form of skull of a people whose likenesses are found on the monuments of Egypt and of America. It has been shown that this peculiar form of the head was present even in the fœtus of the Peruvian mummies.

Hippocrates tells us that the practice among the Scythians was for the purpose of giving a certain aristocratic distinction.

Amedée Thierry, in his “History of Attila,” says the Huns used it for the same reason; and the same purpose influences the Indians of Oregon.

Dr. Lund, a Swedish naturalist, found in the bone caves of Minas-Geraes, Brazil, ancient human bones associated with the remains of extinct quadrupeds. “These skulls,” says Lund, “show not only the peculiarity of the American race but in an excessive degree, even to the entire disappearance of the forehead.” Sir Robert Schomburgh found on some of the affluents of the Orinoco a tribe known as Frog Indians, whose heads were flattened by Nature, as shown in newly-born children …

there was some race characteristic which gave this appearance to their heads. These heads are all the heads of priests, and therefore represented the aristocratic class.

The first illustration below is taken from a stucco relief found in a temple at Palenque, Central America. The second is from an Egyptian monument of the time of Rameses IV.

The outline drawing on the following page shows the form of the skull of the royal Inca line: the receding forehead here seems to be natural, and not the result of artificial compression.

Both illustrations at the bottom of the preceding page show the same receding form of the forehead, due to either artificial deformation of the skull or to a common race characteristic.

We must add the fact that the extraordinary practice of deforming the skull was found all over Europe and America to the catalogue of other proofs that the people of both continents were originally united in blood and race. With the couvade, the practice of circumcision, unity of religious beliefs and customs, folk-lore, and alphabetical signs, language and flood legends, we array together a mass of unanswerable proofs of prehistoric identity of race.” – Sacred Texts

In the Old World, Huns and Alans are also known to have practised similar cranial deformation. See a facial reconstruction of a Hun woman  Das Historische Museum der Pfalz. 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).

Wikipedia: 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 on the coast of Peru, south of the capital Lima, practiced skull binding, resulting cranial deformation. The Paracas situation is somewhat unique in that researchers Juan Navarro and Brien Foerster 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. Testing of these have illustrated that, on average, the cranial capacity is 1.5 liters, approximately 25% larger than contemporary skulls, and weigh as much as 60 percent more. Also, eye orbit cavities are significantly larger than contemporary skulls, and the jaws are both larger and thicker. Moreover, the presence of 2 small holes in the back of the Chongos skulls, called foramen, indicate that blood flow and perhaps nerves exited the skull at the back in order to feed the skin tissue.

Head elongation was also practiced in Oceania, especially on the islands of Vanuatu and Borneo (see also the 19th c. head-flattening board used by the Melanau, of Sarawak (Source: Pitt Rivers Museum)) Source: Head Flattening Facts .

The archaeological records show that in the Andean areas of Peru, both types of head shaping were known among men and women. This figurine is typical of the unglazed cuchimlico figures of the Chancay civilisation in the central coastal region of Peru, north of Lima, that prospered between AD 1200 and 1450. It has large ornamental earplugs and may have been dressed in rich textiles. The exact significance of the flat, bi-lobed head is unclear but since such figures were often found in graves, it is likely to have represented a particular virtue such as wisdom, beauty or godliness.– Source: Pitt Rivers Museum Body Arts | Head shaping: flattening”

Also excerpted from “Sacred Texts“:

AN examination of the American monuments shows (see figure on page 269) that the people represented were in the habit of flattening the skull by artificial means. The Greek and Roman writers had mentioned this practice, but it was long totally forgotten by the civilized world, until it was discovered, as an unheard-of wonder, to be the usage among the Carib Islanders, and several Indian tribes in North America. It was afterward found that the ancient Peruvians and Mexicans practised this art: several flattened Peruvian skulls are depicted in Morton’s “Crania Americana.” It is still in use among the Flat-head Indians of the north-western part of the United States.

In 1849 a remarkable memoir appeared from the pen of M. Rathke, showing that similar skulls had been found near Kertsch, in the Crimea, and calling attention to the book of Hippocrates, “De Aeris, Aquis et Locu,” lib. iv., and a passage of Strabo, which speaks of the practice among the Scythians. In 1854 Dr. Fitzinger published a learned memoir on the skulls of the Avars, a branch of the Uralian race of Turks. He shows that the practice of flattening the head had existed from an early date throughout the East, and described an ancient skull, greatly distorted by artificial means, which had lately been found in Lower Austria. Skulls similarly flattened have been found in Switzerland and Savoy. The Huns under Attila had the same practice of flattening the heads. Professor Anders Retzius proved (see “Smithsonian Report,” 1859) that the custom still exists in the south of France, and in parts of Turkey…”

Video on Youtube (in Korean) highlights the customary practice in Korea and elsewhere; in Russia

Early examples of intentional human cranial deformation predate written history and date back to 45,000 BC in Neanderthal skulls (Source: Artificial cranial deformation (Wikipedia)

The practice is believed to go “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… It is believed that cranial deformation was performed to signify group affiliation or to demonstrate social status. By changing the shape of the skull, some felt it was aesthetically more pleasing or associated with desirable attributes. For example, in the Nahai-speaking area of Tomman Island and southwestern Malekula, a person with an elongated head is thought to be more intelligent, of higher status, and closer to the world of the spirits….It is believed that cranial deformation was performed to signify group affiliation or to demonstrate social 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… there are still some isolated groups in Africa and South America who continue this practice.”– Head Flattening.

African cultures reshaped the skulls of their members to increase an individual’s beauty and to improve social status. Among the people who practiced head flattening, an elongated head indicated a person’s intelligence and spirituality. The Mangbetu people of the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo wrapped their babies’ heads with cloth to elongate their skulls. Once the desired shape became permanent, the cloth was removed, and a woven basket frame was attached to the head at an angle, and the hair was styled over the frame to exaggerate the look of elongation (source: Encyclopedia.com).

Further reading:

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.” Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. 2004. Retrieved January 18, 2013 from Encyclopedia.com

Parr, Nicolette, “Cranial deformation” Intentional Cultural Modifications to the Skeleton ANT 4468 Health and Disease in Human Evolution


Deformed skulls discovered in 1,000-year-old Mexican cemetery by Nicolette Parr

Archaeologists digging in a 1,000-year-old pre-Hispanic cemetery in Mexico’s South Sonora have uncovered a series of skeletons featuring signs of cranial deformation. The practice, which is well documented among Mesoamerican peoples, has never been seen this far north before — a strong indication that their cultural influence was far more prominent than previously assumed.

The ancient burial ground, which is being excavated by Garcia Moreno on behalf of Arizona State University and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), consists of 25 individuals, 13 of which exhibit intentional cranial deformations.

Also called head binding or head flattening, the practice was likely done to signify group affiliation or as a way to demonstrate social status. It may have also been seen as something aesthetically pleasing.

Many cultures have practiced head binding throughout history, even possibly the Neanderthals, and was typically carried out on infants (as their skulls could be easily moulded). To create the effect, wooden boards were applied to the skull with pressure, typically starting at the age of about one month, and then for the next six months.

But as this new discovery has revealed, some cranial deformations did not go so well. Past Horizons explains:

Of the skeletal remains of 25 individuals recovered, 17 are between 5 months and 16 years and 8 are adults. The researcher noted that the number of infants and pre-pubescents identified in the cemetery may be an indicator of poor practice in regards to cranial deformation and death likely was caused by excessive force while squeezing the skull. This she said, is derived from studies conducted on the remains and the results did not show any apparent diseases that could have caused death.

In addition to the discovery of head binding, some individuals exhibited dental mutilation — a cultural practice that’s also common to pre-Hispanic groups in southern Sinaloa and northern Nayarit. Like the cranial deformations, archaeologists are seeing this for the first time in Sonora.

The skeletons also wore ornaments such as bangles, nose rings, earrings, and pendants made from shells found in the Gulf of California. One burial contained a turtle shell that was carefully placed over the abdomen.

According to archaeologist Cristina Garcia Moreno, director of the research project, “This unique find shows a mix of traditions from different groups of northern Mexico. The use of ornaments made from sea shells from the Gulf of California had never been found before in Sonoran territory and this discovery extends the limit of influence of Mesoamerican peoples farther north than has been previously recorded.” [Read more about this remarkable discovery at Past Horizons.]

However, many burials of a site uncovered in Mexico,  “were healthy children, suggesting the process of cranial deformation may have been inept and dangerous”[see photo 2/10 in picture gallery and also The first evidence of deforming skulls was found in the northern Mexican state of Sonora when residents were digging an irrigation canal in 1999. 1/10].

2 thoughts on “East Asian, Native American, Hun and Scythian practices: Artificial deformation of the skull

  1. Ginger Holm says:

    So, the text books in school whih showed human evolution from neandertal to modren man, ere not actually caused by evolution, but by mutilation?

    • I’m sure this statement is made in tongue-in-cheek fashion, but this article is unrelated to evolutionary factors over such lengths of time for different human species, but related to diffusion of cultural practices that can be substantiated by archaeological, historical documents and anthropological finds of binding boards and other devices used to create the desired head forms. Also the scope of the practice under examination in this article is limited to modern man only…so let’s not confuse the issue. Is it possible that Neanderthals practiced head boarding (or trepanning and other known body mutilation) practices? Possibly, but we’d have to have accompanying evidence of the devices to know for sure and that’s hard to find for the large spans of evolutionary time that you are talking about.

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