Cranial deformation: practised by the Incas, it is also a universal custom.

Barbarism, torture, savagery - these are the first words that spring to mind when cranial deformations are mentioned. In 1931, English anthropologist J. Dingwall wrote: "It is probable that this curious yet widespread custom of artificially deforming the skull is the least understood of all the ethnic mutilations which have been handed down from remote antiquity".
Jérome Thomas, University of Montpellier

Lithograph by John Collins (1839) after Samuel Norton's "Crania Americana". Bibliothèque de Médecine de Paris

Indeed, they arouse disapproval and horror, disgust and dismay, and carry with them the - supposed - signs of less evolved and above all exotic societies, far removed from our European lands.

Alien skulls

Beyond their almost epidermal repulsion, deformations also inspire numerous fantasies and excite the imagination. They are said to be proof of the existence of extraterrestrial races of superior intelligence who colonized our planet in distant times.

Robert Connolly, Search for Ancient Wisdom, TV program, 1995.

In 2012, a newspaper headline read "Alien skeletons?", referring to the discovery in Mexico of human remains with deformed skulls. In the 19th century, anthropologists such as von Tschudi even disputed the artificial nature of cranial deformities.
Far from these clichés and sensationalism, manipulations of the occiput offer a vast field of study on the relationship to the body in its cultural, social, ethnic and religious dimensions.
Acting on the growth of the head in order to voluntarily modify its shape is a widespread human custom.

Worldwide distribution of skull modification practices.
J.Thomas, Author provided

An ancient and universal practice

The artificial deformation of newborn skulls is an ancient universal tradition. From Europe to the Americas, via Africa, Asia and Oceania, no region escaped cranial sculpting.
The earliest traces of this practice date back to around 45,000 BC in Iraq. But researchers are still debating the possible deformations on the skull fragments discovered.
On the American continent, this custom has accompanied the development of Andean communities since at least the 6th millennium B.C., becoming an almost widespread practice. Of a collection of 500 skeletons of Peruvian origin preserved in Paris, only 60 show no deformation. In many sites excavated in Mesoamerica, individuals with deformed skulls make up over 90% of the cases observed. In Mexico, the oldest deformed skull discovered by archaeologists dates back to 8500-7000 BC.
In South America, cranial deformities are more likely to have developed on the Pacific coast around 3500-3000 BC.

Different types of deformed skulls in the Paracas culture.
Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú de Lima, Author provided

Some societies made remarkable use of it. The Chinchorro culture (c. 7000 BC to c. 1100 BC), settled in the extreme north of Chile and south of Peru, practiced a very pronounced form of deformation from the 3rd millennium onwards. Several ethnic groups adopted these customs, the best-known of which are the Paracas (600 B.C.-100 A.D.), Nazca (200 B.C.-600 A.D.) and Tiwanaku (c.700-c.1200 A.D.) cultures around Lake Titicaca.
These practices were still alive and well in these regions when the Incas dominated a large part of the Cordillera from the middle of the XVᵉ century onwards. A number of communities under their domination had long been in the habit of artificially deforming the occiput of infants, following the example of their conquerors.
In 1557, the Italian philosopher Girolamo Cardano listed the regions where they were still practiced: Cuba, Mexico, Cumana (Venezuela), Porto Velho (Brazil) and Peru. In the 1550s, the cleric Cieza de León mentions that north of Cali, in Colombia, lived a people whose long, broad heads he describes, and adds that in many regions, children have deformed heads, to the delight of their parents.
The Spaniards were greatly impressed by this custom, which seemed so strange to them. In fact, by the 16th century, it was only practiced exceptionally and residually in a few regions of Northern Europe...
The Spaniards fought fiercely against the practice. They suspected rather than understood the religious dimension of deformations. At the Third Council of Lima (1585), the religious authorities decided to prohibit cranial deformities more firmly and to punish them severely: 20 lashes if a person deformed his or her head. Nevertheless, they continued for a long time.

How did the Incas do it?

Several techniques are used to deform skulls. They are universal. Children's skulls are highly malleable, and this flexibility means that they can be modelled before the final shape takes shape. The cranial vault is remarkably plastic and lends itself well to this kind of manipulation. Definitive ossification does not occur until the age of six. The sutures of the cranial vault allow a certain amount of mobility between the bones, and external compression forces, such as planks or strips, determine this increase in sutures, which are directly affected by them.

Types of apparatus used by the Maya to deform the skull.
J.T, Author provided

Heads were deformed using a variety of methods, with flattening affecting either the top of the skull or the sides. Three types of deforming apparatus were used: the cradle, in which deformation was obtained by pressure exerted on the head of a newborn lying immobilized in a wooden cradle; planks, in which the head was clamped between two pieces of wood placed on the forehead and nape of the neck, thus flattening the skull from front to back. This flattening is known as the "tabular type"; finally, ties or bands, often called chuco, where the skull is compressed from birth using a very tight bandage. This is the "annular or circular" type. This last technique is the one most often described by the Spaniards in what was once the Inca Empire.

Shaping skulls to attach the soul to the body

But why did the Incas deform their skulls?
Cranial modeling distinguishes peoples from one another, indelibly imprints group membership on the body, adorns and embellishes individuals, marks social status, and refers to religion, cosmology, beliefs and initiation rites.
However, researchers have mainly focused on the cultural, social and ethnic dimensions of these practices, whereas the religious dimension is fundamental.
The head represents the center of an individual's spiritual life. It is the seat of the vital force and symbolizes the spirit. The animic force- a beneficial, spiritual power - present in the head is perceived as a beneficial power that provides strength, authority and vitality to the person who holds it, and which can be appropriated provided it is controlled. The head can be associated with two main characteristics: it metaphorically represents the cosmos, and it is the case of the soul.
In Inca cosmology, there is a bodily opposition: front/back - the Incas associate the front of the body with the past and clarity/and the back with the future and darkness - and a top/bottom opposition, with the head corresponding to the upper world, that of the ideal body represented by the celestial bodies. Finally, several spiritual principles surround and animate the human body. One of the most important is the animu, a term borrowed from the Spanish anima, "soul", which is an "animic force", spiritual and not just human.
The animu is distributed throughout the body, but can be concentrated in certain areas and bodily substances: essentially the head, the blood and the heart. Animu is a vital force that animates everything, whether human beings, plants, animals or elements of the landscape. Animu originates in the solar plexus, circulates throughout the body and exits through the head at death. It is therefore vital to hold the child's head tightly at birth, as the soul is not yet firmly attached to the newborn's body, which can cause the animu to be lost. In fact, the fontanelle is not properly closed in infants.
In order to fix the soul to the body, technical means such as cranial deformation are indispensable and imperative. To deform the head is to harden and close the body, to solidify and restore order to at least one of its openings.

Drawings of the various techniques used to deform the skull in pre-Columbian Peru and Chile.
J.T, Author provided

Now extinct, although they were still practiced in the Andes by the Chama, a community established in northeastern Peru, in the middle of the 20th century.e In the 20th century, cranial deformities were a universal practice that could be seen in every social setting.
The ConversationIf, in our contemporary societies, body modification practices are perceived as a way of markers of identity construction and the affirmation of a "sovereign self", this interpretation grid should not be used for more ancient civilizations, particularly those of the Andes. The cosmological and religious dimensions of these civilizations are essential to understanding them. Symbolically, in these societies, the manipulation of the occiput, like all forms of body adornment, plays a primordial role in distinguishing, adorning and protecting. It protects the body and its most vulnerable parts from evil foreign influences and spells. Handling the head, the most visible and exposed part of the body, is a powerful signal. It's an extremely important symbolic language, and the Peruvian people were no exception.
Jérome ThomasResearcher, University of Montpellier
Visit original version of this article was published on The Conversation.