Persistence of Ideologies and Norms during Colonization as Shown in the Practice of Cranial Modification: Three Examples

by Kay McKenna

skull image

Illustration of a Chilean skull demonstrating the “tabular oblique” form of cranial modification. Illustrated from a curated specimen by former UGA undergraduate student and Anthropology major, Christopher Destiche.

Conscious decisions to permanently alter childrens’ skulls for the purpose of asserting cultural identity suggests the persistence of ideologies and cultural norms at all stages of colonization. A short discussion on the cranial modification background and cranial types, as well as the history of locations that used the practice, serve as background for three spotlighted cultures. This article examines the practice of cranial modification in the Huns, the Tiwanaku, and the Collaguas and the Cabanas. Some of the choices were due to desirability, ferociousness, self-preservation, and status. Well-known Aztec and Maya practice origins are also discussed.



Considering the complexity of human identity, it is unfortunate that so little of it is reflected in the human skeleton. Modern technology and the ever-increasing depth and breadth of analyses that can be conducted on skeletal remains have dramatically increased the amount of attainable information about ancient lives. Stable isotope studies can even tell us where individuals lived and what they ate. We may infer status and cultural affiliation from such information. However, as Stojanowski and Duncan (2015) have indicated at some length, a human being’s identity is so much more than what he ate and where he ate it. Archaeologists look at grave goods to ascribe some aspects of socio-economic identity to an individual, but even that is circumstantial at best. Bioarcheologists have looked at cranial modification as a direct indicator of aspects of identity.

Cranial modification has existed for thousands of years (Lorentz, 2017) and can tell us about identity in ways other bioarchaeological methods, such as isotopic studies or skeletal stress, cannot. Cranial modification is a choice. To perform cranial modifications is a deliberate action. Cranial modification is irreversible and permanent, and, unlike tattooing or piercing, it lasts as long as the skeleton itself. Cranial modification, above all, sets a person apart from the others in areas such as class, wealth, or status, and associates him or her with a particular group of people. This can be, for example, an ethnic, cultural, or religious group, all of which help to reveal identity. Since colonization is, in effect, one culture imposing its social structure, economy, and identity on another culture, it is interesting to see what ideologies persist and which are subsumed by the colonizer’s traditions and customs. In this paper, I will discuss three examples of cranial modification that were affected by colonization.


Origins of Modification

The earliest examples of cranial modification date to the 8th century BC, in Tepe Abdul Hosein, Iran (Lorentz, 2017). The sample size is small, but eight of the nine males in the collection exhibit cranial modification. There is one female in the group who does not show any cranial modification. This practice suggests that an understanding of newborn heads’ plasticity has existed for thousands of years. This knowledge was probably inadvertent, a result of the protective practice of strapping children to boards for increased maternal mobility (Lorentz, 2009) or of the universal practice of infants sleeping on rigid surfaces. It is possible that the earliest cases of cranial modification were unintentional. However considering increased occurrences it is evident that mothers began to experiment and to develop the practice. Cranial modifications eventually became a way to mark a cultural identity permanently (Lorentz, 2009).

Types of Modification

Dembo and Imbelloni (1938) set forth one of the first classifications for cranial modifications. It includes two categories with two sub categories. The first category is tabular, in which rigid wooden surfaces are strapped to an infant’s head. This type of modification most likely resulted from the use of cradleboards. Later innovations led to tablets of padded wood that were strapped to a newborn’s head. Many ethnographic pictures show a child strapped to a cradleboard to flatten the occipital bone while another board is folded over the front of the skull to mold the frontal bones. Later models for older infants do away with the cradleboard and are simply pieces of wood strapped to the skull that allow the child more movement. There are two end results from tabular modification. The first is a head that is flattened in the back and a forehead that is very high; the second is a head that is flattened in the back and a face that is very wide. The differences depends on the placement of the boards.

The second category of cranial modification is annular. Imaginably more comfortable and less confining for the child, annular modification is accomplished by wrapping bands of cloth or rope around the head. This keeps the skull in a cylindrical shape and produces an elongated circular modification. Both categories can have either of the two sub categories: oblique, in which the head is tilted posteriorly, and erect, in which the back of the skull is more vertical.

Tabular – formed with wooden surfaces Flattens occipital Flattens head on back or forehead Oblique – flattens backwards

Erect – flattens going vertical

Annual – bound with bands of cloth or rope Creates cylindrical shape Elongates skull Oblique – cylindrical backwards

Erect – cylindrical vertical

Table 1 – Cranial modification types.

Location of Practice

As discussed above, Iran currently has the oldest examples of cranial modification, though many cultures have utilized cranial modification independently of each other. Probably the most infamous case of cranial modification comes from the Maya, who practiced cranial modification from 1000 BC to AD 1500. Additionally, the tribes of Northern Chile and Peru began the practice by approximately 2300 BC and continued until AD 1400.   Greece and other European countries began in the Neolithic Era. Some of the countries involved were Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Southern Levant (Lorentz 2009), Peru, Chile (Torrez-Rouff, 2005), Mesoamerica and the Native American tribes of the United States. Most cultures have discontinued the practice; however, communities in Toulouse, France continued the annular type of head-shaping until the late 19th century (Cottin, 2016).

Modification as Identity

There are as many places where people have engaged in head-shaping as there are reasons for its application, though the most common seems to be identity. In one way or another, cranial modification engenders some sense of identity in that individual and marks him or her as a member of a particular group, culture, or social class. In 1566, Diego de Landa offered a firsthand account of why the Maya participated in the practice:

They disfigure their faces in order that they might appear ferocious and fierce….This was done to frighten the enemy in war and also for coquetry. As the result of this custom of appearing deformed and ferocious in war, they forced the princes in some provinces to make their faces and heads…pointed, long and with wide foreheads (Torrez, 1941).

This example identifies two such individual identities: both princes and warriors had their heads shaped. de Landa, whose work was translated by Torrez in 1941, goes on to explain that their gods had given them instructions for head-shaping.

Another example of head shaping from Mesoamerica shows an occupational basis for head-shaping (Geller, 2011). Tumplines were straps that early Mesoamericans used to carry loads on their backs. The tumpline went around the forehead, so the weight was distributed to the spine rather than the shoulders. In a strictly divided social class system, such as the Maya and Aztecs, being a merchant or a warrior was the only way to break out of the lower class and achieve a higher social status. The ability to carry bigger and heavier loads as a merchant would have been an advantage in this market system. Having a tabular erect head shape could have been beneficial when carrying large loads. A higher forehead for the strap and a flat head in back would have allowed one to carry one’s head high and prevented one from looking down. From a parent’s point of view, cranial shaping was a matter of providing a better future for children.

decorative image of children

There is one more possibility for head-shaping, again taken from the Maya. Most of the aforementioned examples of head-shaping have been male-centric. While this provides insight into male identity and the role that head-shaping played in male-dominated social spheres, it does not address the females who underwent cranial modification. Linguistics may give us some insight into female cranial modification. The Mayan word for head, “baah” (Geller, 2011; Houston, 2006), can also be translated as “a woman’s first born.” Consequently, if a daughter was the first born, she could have had her head modified. This could account for the females who had cranial modification. In contrast, one could argue that a woman with cranial modification could have been part of the social elite. However, in the Gellar (2011) study in Dos Barbasa, Individual 22 was a female who had an obviously elite burial, yet she showed no cranial modifications.

Although these suggestions of identities motivating cranial modifications all come from Mesoamerican traditions, it is possible that they apply to other cultures. The Maya have a considerable amount of ethnohistorical documentation to support the practices. Conversely, in other cultures, we are left only to speculate about possible explanations for the practice. In the following three examples, I will discuss cranial modification in relation to marking ethnicity in conjunction with colonization.

Colonialism and Persistence of Head Shaping

Group I: The Huns

The Eurasia Steppe is a grass land that connects Eastern Europe to China, including parts of Central and Southern Asia and the Middle East. The Steppe has been home to many nomadic tribes since the Paleolithic times, possibly 12,000 years ago. The Huns are just one of these tribes, having invaded the grass land of the Eurasian Steppes in AD 200. The Huns had a reputation as a fierce clan that were ruthless in acquiring other tribes’ livestock. However, there is also some evidence that they had villages and homes and worked out tribute systems for those they conquered. Hun children and their mothers used annular or circular cranial modifications regularly.

It is important to note that within the other Steppe’s nomadic groups, tabular cranial modification has been practiced periodically since 2000 BC. The practice disappeared for over a millennium and reappeared again in 700-500 BC (Torrez-Rouff, 2005). However, during its original practice and resurgence, only the tabular form was practiced.

When the Huns invaded the grasslands, both the conquerors and the conquered had their own type of ethnic identities manifest in different types of cranial modification. Slowly, without coercion, the tabular Steppe groups changed their cranial modification to that of the annular Huns. Almost 80% of the Steppe groups shifted to the annular head shape (Tot & Firshtein, 1976). It is unknown whether the conquered chose to emulate the victorious Hun tribe out of admiration or out of self-preservation. However, it is uncontested that the characteristic ethnic identity marking of the Hun heritage was now compromised, and annular crania were now a mark of only possible lineage. The remaining 20% who did not conform to the Hunnic skull shape reveal that there was a sizeable number who persisted in their ideals of ethnic identity despite the influence of another culture.

Group II: The Tiwanaku

The second example of ethnical identity of cranial modification and colonialism is the Tiwanaku. The Tiwanaku state dates to AD 300 to 1150 in the Lake Titicaca area of Bolivia. Archaeological evidence suggests that Tiwanaku was a ceremonial center and not a military civilization (Cartwright, 2014). It also suggests that Tiwanaku established relationships with surrounding populations through trade rather than conquest. The Tiwanaku practiced the annular form of cranial modification (Torrez-Rouff, 2005). The use of cranial modification in this region was used extensively to mark group affiliation (Polhemus, 1978). Peoples of Chile and Peru commonly used tabular modifications to set themselves apart from the Bolivian tribes. The Tiwanaku influenced two populations, the Moquegua Valley of Southern Peru, whom the Tiwanaku colonized, and the population of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, whom they did not colonize. Instead the Tiwanaku influenced the people of San Pedro through trade and other associations. As one might expect, there was a large shift in Moquegua Valley from the original tabular modification to annular modification. Between 83-97% made the change to the Tiwanaku style (Blom, 1998). However, even without direct colonialization, the population of San Pedro de Atacama felt the influence of the Tiwanaku, as manifest in their cranial modifications.

Evidence from cemeteries in San Pedro de Atacama, both pre- and post-influence, show a slight increase by 10% of the switch from tabular to annular modifications (Torrez-Rouff, 2002). This shift may have been due to intermarriages and a common desire to identify with a more prestigious culture, but it was not as dramatic as with direct colonialization. This is clearly an example of the population’s choice to change their cranial modifications to reflect their new ideology, whereas others chose to retain their traditional beliefs.

Group III: The Collaguas and the Cabanas

The native tribes of Peru, the Collaguas and the Cabanas, both lived in the Colca Valley at approximately 6000 BC. The Colca Valley is strewn along some of the steepest cliffs in the world, twice as steep as the Grand Canyon, and the area has over forty volcanoes. The inhabitants of this area used agricultural terracing to provide food and the Colca River for water. Despite the treacherous surroundings, their way of life was deeply rooted in the canyon and volcanoes.

Colca Canyon image

By [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

These two distinct ethnic groups associated their identities with the deities they worshiped. Both groups believed that their deities resided in the nearby volcanoes (Ulloa Mogollon, 1965). The Collaguas tribes’ deity, “apu,” resided in the Sabancaya volcano, which had very steep high peaks. The indigenous Cabanas worshiped the god of the Hualca-Hualca, whose volcano was much lower and wider than Sabancaya. Each of these ethnic groups chose cranial modifications that symbolized their allegiance to the volcano that represented their respective deities; they modified their skulls to emulate volcano shapes in order to show their devotion. The Collaguas performed erect cranial modifications on their children to show allegiance to the god of the Sabancaya volcano, while the Cabanas used a wider, flatter shaping, symbolic of their god of the Hualca-Hualca volcano.

However, when the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th century, they quickly outlawed all forms of cranial modification and demanded that both groups cover their modified heads with hats. The Spanish thought that they had solved the problem, but they had done so in action rather than in theory. The native tribes would not give up their identities and cultural beliefs that easily. They may have discontinued the practice of cranial modification in newborns, but the hats that they choose to wear, both reflective of their previous head shapes and volcanic deities, became the new symbols for their identities (Arriaga, 1996). They continued to wear their respective hats after generations of cranial modifications had subsided. Their ideology of allegiance to a deity, or religion, persisted through another outlet, chosen headwear, despite colonization.


I have discussed three cases wherein colonization affected the ethnic identities of indigenous cultures. The first was a direct shift to an altogether different form of cranial modification. The second was a gradual and small shift that came by association, not forced adherence. The last was a shift from cranial modification to another visible symbol of ethnicity. In all cases, there was an element of choice. In the first, not all gave up their customs, since there were 20% that maintained their original traditions. In the second, 83% of the people willingly shifted their cranial shaping without coercion from a colonizing force while 17% persisted with their original ideology. In the last group, although they were forced to abandon the practice of head-shaping, they found another source to display their cultural identity. This shows that, within in each group, there was at least a small element of choice. Ethnic identity could be preserved if the desire was strong enough.

Identity comes from a number of sources, including cultural, religious, ethnic, or familial groups. Humans take pride and comfort in knowing that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. People want to show their allegiance or admiration to groups and hope to achieve acceptance. Such identity-seeking still occurs today, though not in such a severe context as cranial shaping. Consider the attire and body modifications (in the way of face and body paint) that occur at athletic events. Moreover, consider the continued dress standards for the Mennonites or Amish. Skeletons reflect none of these markers, but the purpose is still served, designating identity through unity.skeleton decorative image

In most cases of identity, there is an element of choice. Overlooking the fact that the individual child is not given a choice to have cranial modification, it is the choice of his family. As evident by these three case studies, there is an element of choice in the persistence of ideologies and norms. Even if the persistence is carried out in a small percentage of the culture or manifest in a different way, these cases show evidence of that choice.


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