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The Bioarchaeology of the Human HeadDecapitation, Decoration, and Deformation$

Michelle Bonogofsky

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813035567

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813035567.001.0001

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Getting a Head Start in Life

Getting a Head Start in Life

Pre-Columbian Maya Cranial Modification from Infancy to Ancestorhood

(p.241) 10 Getting a Head Start in Life
The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head

Pamela L. Geller

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

The pre-Columbian Maya possessed a penchant for irreversible alteration of their bodies. This chapter takes a closer look at the ancient motivations behind and meanings encoded in cranial shaping. In the wake of conquest, Christianization and colonialism effectively eradicated this practice, and its social significance faded with time. Historical Western accounts and modern scientific inquiries have subsequently represented intentional cranial shaping as deforming or pathological. Using a life course approach informed by social theories about identity, this chapter argues that the Maya modified infant crania to instigate a process of becoming. Specifically, individuals' shaped heads may have marked a special, pre-ordained status connected to familial position and/or occupational activities. Cranial shaping among the Maya clearly occurred regardless of socialpolitical or economic position, based on the inclusion of shaped crania of both commoners and nobles who occupied house ruins and minor and major centers in the Three Rivers region of northwestern Belize.

Keywords:   cranial modification, pre-Columbian Maya, social Identity, habitual activity, socialization, hexis

The pre-Columbian Maya possessed a penchant for irreversible alteration of their bodies—filing or inlaying teeth, piercing, and tattooing skin. These morphologically varied types of modifications communicated distinct messages, producing culturally potent and widely understood symbols during painful alterations and ritually sanctioned events (Geller 2006a). Cranial modification, however, presents a marked contrast to dental alteration, piercing, and tattooing, because intentional shaping of a skull can only occur during infancy, when cranial bones are neither fully formed nor fused; for this reason, modification of crania has been described as painless (Blackwood and Danby 1955).

Ethnographic analogy yields few salient clues about ancient motivations and meanings among the pre-Columbian Maya, because contemporary Maya no longer mold their crania. In the wake of conquest, Christianization and colonialism effectively eradicated cranial modification, and sadly the social significance of these marks was lost. Repudiation of this indigenous practice finds parallels in other parts of the world where Western influence passively or forcibly infiltrated, as with the Arawe of New Britain, Melanesia (Blackwood and Danby 1955 ).

Fortunately, Maya scholars have a plethora of other sources from which to draw—skeletal remains, architectural context, associated artifacts, artistic images, and critically utilized ethnohistories. For example, excavators have exhumed intentionally shaped crania from Middle Preclassic graves, circa 1200 BC in Cuello, Belize (Saul and Saul 1997 ). Artistic portraiture of the divine and noble from disparate regions in the Classic Maya world underscores the pervasiveness of this practice, and, some 2,700 years after the initiation of cranial alteration, European chroniclers verified the continuance (and their (p.242) abhorrence) of such practices. Although source materials are rich and varied, the focus of skeletal analysis is often on the documentation of stylistic differences, as opposed to interpretations about the significance of cranial shaping (although see Duncan 2009; Romano Pacheco 1987; Tiesler Blos 1998; Tiesler Blos and Romano Pacheco 2008).

To this end, I consider the shaped crania of individuals who occupied various sites—house ruins, minor centers, major centers—in the Río Bravo region of northwestern Belize. Although 132 individuals, representing both commoner and noble classes, were excavated, only 25 of these decedents, who lived and died during the Classic period (AD 250–900), could be analyzed for the presence or absence of in vivo modification. Using a lifecourse approach informed by social theories about identity, I argue that occupants of northwestern Belize modified infant crania to instigate a process of becoming. In support of this assertion, I scale down from the larger population to the community and the individual, expanding on the interments of three commoners from the minor center Dos Barbaras, finding that shaped heads may have marked a special status connected to familial position and/or occupational activities.

Marking Identity

Ethnohistoric Accounts

Chronicles of sixteenth-century Maya practices indicate that cranial modification was born of ritual circumstances associated with birth. Spanish friar Diego de Landa recognized that after binding the head of their child, the parents took him or her to a priest for naming (in Tozzer 1941: 129). No prescribed length of time or degree of pressure is recorded, and Landa is similarly silent about the sex of the infant. The friar did remark upon the role of the mother in cranial molding, as the decision to modify or not to modify lay literally and figuratively in her hands (in Tozzer 1941: 125). Yet Landa's impartiality is com-promised by his declaration that molding a head caused pain and jeopardized the life of a newborn. As we know this not to be the case ethnographically (Blackwood and Danby 1955), his characterization of cranial modification as agonizing and at times fatal perhaps supplied the church with added rationale for the banning of transformative practices.

The Maya perceived such modification as ennobling and functional, rather than deforming, as implied by Juan de Torquemada's accounts: “When the children are very young, their heads are soft and can be moulded in the shape that you see ours to be, by using two pieces of wood hollowed out in the (p.243) middle. This custom, given to our ancestors by the gods, gives us a noble air, and our heads are thus better adapted to carry loads” (in Tozzer 1941: 88n372). Ultimately, when we utilize ethnohistoric documents cautiously and with critical reflection, there is much to learn about cranial shaping. For instance, the Maya possessed a sophisticated working knowledge of body physiology and anatomy. Technique seems fairly uniform, though the degree of shaping appears to have been contingent on the personal predilection of those who initiated manipulation. Alteration did not require luxurious materials or laborious processes, thereby making it accessible to members from different social groups. Sexual differences did not seem to determine who did or did not have their crania shaped. With this information in hand, we may ascertain whether bioarchaeological data support historic accounts or call them into question.

Bioarchaeological Data

Dembo and Imbelloni's (1938) seminal work is a touchstone for standard classification of the forms that intentionally shaped crania take in the pre-Columbian Americas. Briefly, the two primary types—tabular or annular (or orbicular)—were contingent on the technique or apparatus used. Tabular refers to tablets secured anteriorly and/or posteriorly to the head, while an annular style resulted when bands were wrapped around the head. These types can be further subdivided into oblique (tilted posteriorly) or erect (vertical), which were produced by placing pressure on the frontal or occipital regions, respectively.

Table 10.1 summarizes the absence and presence of shaping in the twenty-five crania from the Río Bravo Conservation Area (figure 10.1), as well as the type of shaping, when present. Four of the twenty-five individuals did not exhibit cranial shaping, while five crania displayed the marks of inadvertent modification attributable to the repetition of specific practices. Distinguishing quotidian existence from ritual intent is challenging, but there are some telltale signatures. Cradleboard usage during infancy appears to have exerted pressure on the lambdoidal area (Saul 1972: 10), and four individuals from the Río Bravo region display flattened occiputs. Saul and Saul (1991: 154) also argue that repeated use of tumplines to transport heavy burdens may have produced postcoronal depressions on adult crania. In the sample from northwestern Belize, the cranium of Individual 35 from Dos Barbaras displays this suggestive groove. Interestingly, this cranium was intentionally modified in a tabular erect style (see below for further discussion).

Individuals who displayed intentional cranial modification (see table 10.1) were far more prevalent in the Río Bravo sample. More than half of all individuals (n=13; 52 percent) displayed conventional shaping of some sort. No skulls (p.244)

Getting a Head Start in LifePre-Columbian Maya Cranial Modification from Infancy to Ancestorhood

Figure 10.1. Map of the Río Bravo region. Adapted from Houk 1996.


Table 10.1. Occurrence of shaped crania at centers from the Río Bravo region

Type of cranial shaping

Total (N=25)

% of total





Unintentional occipital flattening



Unintentional postcoronal depression



Tabular erect



Possible tabular erect



Tabular oblique



Possible tabular oblique



Possible tabular



Possible cranial shaping



were shaped in an annular style. Tabular erect and possible tabular erect (n=6; 24 percent) occur more frequently in the sample than tabular oblique (n=2; 8 percent). Degree of shaping ranged from slight to extreme. In the case of those individuals with tabular erect modification, there were three instances of extreme, one moderate, and one slight. One individual with tabular oblique modification exhibited moderate shaping, and one individual exhibited extreme shaping. Flattened cranial fragments also pointed to the presence of possible cranial shaping for an additional three individuals in the sample.

Correlation of this information with other data may illumine which individuals were more likely to be selected for shaping, particularly with regard to sex, social position, and ethnicity. Table 10.2 summarizes the presence and absence of intentional shaping in the sample based on sex. Also included in table 10.2 are the three individuals whose flattened frontal bones suggest possible cranial shaping. From this small sample, male crania displayed shaping more often than females. Nonetheless, both sexes had their crania modified as infants.

Individuals with intentionally shaped crania were recovered from a range of grave types—from humble pit graves to grand, labor-intensive tombs—with no established assemblage of grave goods. Decedents with intentional cranial modification were found both with and without grave goods. Hence, 10 Getting a Head Start in Life

Table 10.2. Intentional tabular cranial shaping by sex in the Río Bravo sample



M + M?

% of total (N=25)



F + F?

% of total (N=25)

Cranial shaping +









Possible cranial shaping









Cranial shaping −









(p.246) contingent on grave types and grave goods, a specific and ascribed socioeconomic status did not appear to be a prerequisite for cranial shaping (although see Sharapova and Razhev this volume for examples from Eurasia). The stylistic distinction between erect and oblique, however, is discussed below.

Of the sixteen individuals with intentional or possible cranial shaping, seven individuals also bore at least one dental filing or inlay, a modification that has been argued to signify special status within commoner and noble communities (Geller 2006b). Five individuals, however, had no modified teeth, and dental modification could not be determined in the case of four individuals. Hence, I propose that the shaping of infant crania did not necessarily dictate the modification of their permanent dentition later in life.

In other cases, bioarchaeologists have documented a link between cranial modification and ethnicity. Researchers working in the Andes, for example, have identified typological differences as evidence for the maintenance of ethnic boundaries among the Chiribaya (Lozada this volume; Lozada 1998; Lozada and Buikstra 2005) at San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (Gerszten 1993; Torres-Rouff 2002, 2009) and at Tiwanaku, Bolivia (Blom et al. 1998). Because researchers are still fleshing out the degree of ethnic differentiation among the Classic Maya, connecting ethnic identity to cranial modification is tenuous. As Sharer and Traxler (2006: 93–94) note, “Maya civilization comprises a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups. Yet despite similar conditions in the Andes, the Inka were able to conquer and control a vast empire in a diverse environmental and cultural setting. [They] were motivated by an ideology that promoted their destiny to rule over their empires. Maya states were not organized to incorporate conquered territory and populations.” This different political organization may have made such boundary maintenance unnecessary in the larger Maya world. While Tiesler Blos 1998 does not explicitly argue that shaped crania marked ethnic identity, she does make the case for boundary maintenance between discrete communities and has suggested that cranial styles from forty-one Maya sites in Mexico were shared among members of distinct residential groups, a contention that she supports with data from 403 crania (see Bonogofsky this volume for intrasite variation in the Levant). In comparison, the sample from northwestern Belize, which contains data from fourteen sites, only includes crania shaped in the tabular variety. Contrary to the argument Tiesler Blos 1998 makes, then, there is no evidence in this sample that different Maya communities favored specific styles. Rather, cranial modification indicates the materialization of shared cultural traditions and aesthetic ideals for Maya peoples from separate communities. Clearly, the bigger picture of ethnicity is very complicated, and pooling together distant (p.247) regions may shed further light on the issue. But perhaps a more salient question pertains to the symbolic significance of the head: why modify crania?

A Matter of Scale: Individuals in Communities

Contingent on one's research questions, a population-based perspective is quite useful, as bioarchaeological studies of health, paleodemography, and paleopathology have underscored (e.g., Márquez Morfín and Storey 2005; Márquez Morfín et al. 2002; Storey et al. 2002; Wright and Chew 1998). We also know that mourners throughout the Maya world intentionally buried select decedents beneath structures that the living continued to use (e.g., Geller 2004, 2006b; Gillespie 2001, 2002; McAnany 1995; Webster 1997). Maya commoners during the Classic period, for instance, often buried deceased kin beneath their houses. These practices and spatial arrangements granted social viability to the biological dead and ensured an ongoing dialogue between the living and their powerful ancestors. But many burial samples also contain important and at times subtle information for which macro-scale analyses of observable patterns cannot always account. In the case of cranial modification, there is much about shared cultural practices and beliefs that we can learn from scaling down to the level of the community, family, and individual. A reduction in scale is especially constructive for thinking about commoner burials recovered from the minor center Dos Barbaras.

Located just west of the region's namesake, the Río Bravo, Dos Barbaras comprised at least five courtyards, Groups A through E (figure 10.2). This minor center resides on the periphery of two major centers: Dos Hombres and La Milpa (see figure 10.1). According to the site excavator, Brandon Lewis (personal communication, 2002), occupation extended from the Late Preclassic to the Late/Terminal Classic periods (ca. 400 BC–AD 900). As of 2001, seventeen individuals have been recovered from the site. Excavators unearthed the majority of these interments (n=14) in association with the residential structures arranged around Group B's courtyard. This location—atop a small ridge, in the center of the site, and associated with a stela—indicates importance within the community. Structures 11 and 6, in particular, contained multiple interments of decedents who are presumed to have had consanguineal and/or affinal ties (figure 10.3).

Structure 11 was an architecturally complex building. Numerous renovations and multiple interments qualify the building as the community residential and ritual center. Ten individuals in total were buried beneath this structure (Geller 2005). For several of these decedents, grave type, associated (p.248)

Getting a Head Start in LifePre-Columbian Maya Cranial Modification from Infancy to Ancestorhood

Figure 10.2. Map of Dos Barbaras. Courtesy of Brandon Lewis.

Getting a Head Start in LifePre-Columbian Maya Cranial Modification from Infancy to Ancestorhood

Figure 10.3. Group B at Dos Barbaras. Courtesy of Brandon Lewis.

Getting a Head Start in LifePre-Columbian Maya Cranial Modification from Infancy to Ancestorhood

Figure 10.4. Individual 35 interred beneath the floor of Room 2, Structure 6, Group B, Dos Barbaras.

architecture, and grave goods evoke ancestor veneration. Individual 22, a female 25–44 years of age, especially typified this ancestral status. Her Late/ Terminal Classic capped cist, which kin had situated directly underneath a bench (or family altar), and unique grave goods—a polychrome plate fragment, stingray spine, and triangular jade pendant—signaled prominence acquired in life and after death. Despite these markers of ancestorhood, she exhibited no signs of cranial modification. Indeed, as Duncan has discussed (2009), the presence of an unshaped head by no means implied that Individual 22 was any less a fully embodied and important member of the community.

Yet contextualized analysis of those with cranial modification reveals similarly intriguing information about the formation and reformulation of social identity at Dos Barbaras. Just across the courtyard from Structure 11, to the east in Structure 6, the remains of two individuals with tabular cranial modification were recovered. Individual 35, mentioned earlier, was a male 20–30 years of age (figure 10.4). Individual 34 was an adult of unknown sex whose postcranial remains extended into the trench sidewall, thus remaining mostly unexcavated and unanalyzed.

Mourners had interred Individuals 34 and 35 beneath the plaster floors of separate though adjoining rooms (Room 3 and Room 2, respectively). Which individual was interred first is unclear, but both burials date to the Late/Terminal Classic period (ca. AD 700–900). No grave goods were found (p.251) in association with either decedent. Their grave types were neither grand nor labor intensive. Mourners appear to have placed Individual 34 into the floor construction fill. For Individual 35, the parameters of an intentional pit grave were discernible. The fill directly associated with his remains was distinct from construction fill outside of the grave space. Grave builders appear to have excavated a pit into the floor and then sealed over the intrusion during a replastering episode. In the case of both decedents, the configuration of bodies positioned beneath residence living floors is suggestive of interaction between socially viable ancestors and their kin.

Altering Bodies to Embody Ideals

To initiate a discussion of cranial modifications in Individuals 34 and 35, a lifecourse approach is useful. Such an approach, according to Gowland 2006: 145), conceptualizes individual identities as complex, culturally contingent, and dynamic from conception to death. Data collected from the burials of Individuals 34 and 35 certainly facilitates consideration of identities as they shift from infancy to adulthood to ancestorhood. Intentional and unintentional changes to crania were the product of social practices that continued throughout the course of an individual's life. These practices, whether related to special events like birth or quotidian activities, set in motion a process of becoming.

This notion of becoming draws on Foucault's vision of docile bodies (Foucault 1977)—individual bodies that are subjugated, controlled, disciplined, and transformed through normalizing systems of power (e.g., military, schools, religious institutions). Yet as Meskell (1998: 141) stresses, a body is not only “a forum for display” of social norms and power relations. Processes of becoming that involve inscriptive practices also communicate information about an individual's experience of the world. These experiences may indicate internalization of or resistance to ideals and ideology. Ideas about bodily norms, transformations, and experiences then assist us in thinking about why members of the Dos Barbaras community decided to mold the crania of Individuals 34 and 35.

Physically and permanently molding infant crania facilitated culturally shaping, or socializing, individuals into viable and visually pleasing community members. These practices instigated a process of becoming, one which was intimately connected to life-cycle rituals associated with birth and cultural norms concerned with aesthetics. To highlight the importance of the head in this process of becoming, we can reflect on the multiple though related meanings of baah (Houston and Stuart 1998; Houston et al. 2006). According to Houston and his colleagues, the concept implies “body,” though (p.252) epigraphic and linguistic analyses also link it to “head” and “face.” They (2006: 61) write, “The entries from Tzotzil and Yukatek Mayan define baah and its various forms as aspects of appearance, a recognizable ‘visage’ or overall mien, if always in a corporal, embodied sense. … The surface, the ‘face,’ does not so much mimic aspects of identity as realize them.”

Although these authors are concerned with iconographic and glyphic images of bodies, the connection they identify between personal identity and the body may help us understand the motivations that undergirded cranial shaping. Modification of one's head would certainly work to shape or materialize personal identity. Self-expression on the part of the modifiee was of little importance, as he or she was too young to condemn or support these acts of alteration.

Houston and coauthors (2006: 62) continue to expand on baah: “Mayan script and language also make metaphoric use of ‘head’ as a means of exaltation, of designating someone as the principal member of a particular category of person.” For example, the term ba-al, which they translate as “a woman's firstborn child,” is salient for thinking about the bridge between infants, rituals related to birth, and shaped heads. Because all members of a community did not have shaped crania, it may be that mothers only molded the heads of their firstborn children. And for these individuals, their status would have been forever visible to the larger community.

One's position as firstborn may have also gone hand in glove with future expectations. I informally call this “getting a head start in life.” As mentioned earlier, ethnohistory makes reference to the functional aspects of cranial shaping: that is, modifications facilitated the carrying of loads. Shaping of skulls soon after birth perhaps set the role of transporter or trader in motion by parents. This ascription of role may have signaled individual familial obligations or “occupational” identity in adulthood. Romano Pacheco 1987: 29) has proffered a similar notion, suggesting that stylistic differences marked distinct social statuses during the Classic period:

En el caso de la deformación cefálica intencional encontramos que efectivamente existe cierta diferenciación por status social ya que el pueblo en general sólo podía imprimir a las cabezas de sus hijos la forma tabular erecta. En cambio, gobernantes, jerarcas, sacerdotes, guerreros y otros personajes de alto rango social, predestinados desde niños a ocupar las categorías de más alto renombre en la sociedad, se les conformaba la cabeza en el artificial modo tabular oblicuo. (emphasis in original) [In the case of intentional cephalic deformation we find that there effectively exists a certain difference by social status since common people (p.253) in general could only imprint the heads of their children in the tabular erect form. Instead, governors, leaders, priests, warriors and other persons of high social rank, predestined from birth to occupy the most renowned categories in society, had their heads shaped in the artificial style tabular oblique.]

Romano Pacheco 1987 based his statements on his iconographic analysis of Classic sculptures and painted images recovered from various Maya centers. A bioarchaeological analysis then extends his contribution by providing empirical evidence from contextualized human remains. I put forward an explanation for Individual 35's intentional and unintentional cranial modification below.

Individual 35 displayed an extreme type of tabular erect cranial modification. He had strong frontal flattening, as well as lateral bulging. Intriguingly, this individual also possessed a postcoronal depression. To reiterate, repeated use of a tumpline to transport heavy burdens could produce a trans-verse groove behind the coronal suture (Saul and Saul 1991: 154). We also see this postcoronal grooving in the historic-era skulls of Kwakuitl from British Columbia (Cybulski 1977), a group that modified infant crania and utilized tumplines to transport burdens (Curtis 1915: 4, 17; Jenness 1977 [1932]: 101, 150). Such an inadvertent mark speaks to the idea of practice making person, or bodily hexis, in the words of Bourdieu 1990: 69–70). That is, identities are materialized via repeated, culturally determined practices that are consciously and subtly reflected on the body. Likewise, Individual 34, whose parietal fragments exhibited lateral bulging, may have (re)produced this social identity through daily practices. Poor preservation, however, inhibited the identification of a groove on the cranial fragments of this decedent. The formation of individual identities thus may have commenced in infancy during ritual moments, as evidenced by the shaped crania of these two individuals. As the years went on, Individual 35's repetition of salient practices, marked by his postcoronal depression, perhaps served to maintain a social identity that had been preordained early in life.

Returning to the words of Romano Pacheco 1987, we may reflect further on the connection between stylistic types and identities shaped by political, economic, and social distinctions. As Romano Pacheco notes, tabular erect cranial modification reiterated (or possibly realized) the social positions of “el pueblo.” Therefore, the fact that the crania of Individual 35, the resident of a minor center, was tabular erect in style may be more than coincidence. In comparison, the tabular oblique style occurs infrequently in the sample from the Río Bravo region. Indeed, the only two individuals with this style of (p.254) modification were recovered in association with the region's major center, La Milpa.

Individual 114, a 20- to 30-year-old male, displayed a moderate degree of tabular oblique cranial modification. Excavators recovered his remains from beneath a bench in an elite residential group, an architectural feature that likely marked his ancestral identity. His burial, which was located just south of La Milpa's central Plaza A, dated to the Terminal Classic period (ca. AD 800–900). The second individual, Individual 94, a 20- to 30-year-old of indeterminate sex, exhibited an extreme degree of tabular oblique modification. This individual resided at La Caldera, a minor center located just three kilometers from La Milpa (Kunen 2001, 2004). Mourners had placed this decedent into a labor-intensive tomb, a grave type that occurs infrequently in the Río Bravo region (n=12; 9 percent of the total sample) and is generally found in association with monumental architecture. The tomb of Individual 94 was located beneath a structure adjacent to the center's main temple. Hence, architectural and spatial contexts indicate that Individuals 94 and 114 may have been of elite and quite possibly noble status. Perhaps the oblique style allowed nobles to embody the divine and replicate the aesthetically ideal. This idea builds on the suggestion made by Houston and colleagues (2006: 45) that modified crania symbolized ears of corn, a corpo-realization of the Maize God's conical head. Tabular oblique styles may have “imprinted” them as such early in life and represented a pointed contrast to the tabular erect modification of Individual 35.

Discussion of Semantic Sensibilities

Western scholars' fascination with the skull's malleability is longstanding, and the reasons for modification of newborns' crania have eluded researchers investigating the Maya for just as extended a time (Buikstra 1997: 227). The problem may stem in part from European stigmatization of native peoples' modifications in the wake of conquest and during colonialism. Derogatory characterization was one way by which conquistadores, chroniclers, and colonizers “othered” native peoples and, in so doing, justified their subjugation and exploitation (Geller 2004, 2006a). An especially dogmatic and influential seventeenth-century source for these disparaging attitudes was John Bulwer 1650, a British physician and natural philosopher whose central thesis in Anthropometamorphosis was that body modifications, regardless of type and degree, signified blasphemy, not beauty (Geller 2006a). Shaped crania appear to have produced a special revulsion in Bulwer. Indeed, the first edition's frontispiece (p.255) depicted various thumbnail sketches of men's artificially “deformed” heads, about which he waxed caustically (figure 10.5).

  • Out of wise Nature's plastique hands thy Head
  • Came like a Ball of wax, oblongly spread:
  • Now'ts like, in its acuminated line,
  • A sugar-loaf or Apple of the Pine; round,
  • Nowt's long, now short, now flat, now
  • square, now Indented now like to a Foysting-hound;
  • Twas soft, now hard; it is a Blockhead made. (Bulwer 1650: A2)
Such poetry belies Bulwer's sentiments about the body's plasticity. Indeed, to manipulate and mold the head, he believed, ultimately produced a person of inferior intelligence, one without brains. Hence, the term blockhead does double duty, describing both morphology and behavior.

The presumption that (mis)shaped heads signal immorality and idiocy may linger, as evidenced by some contemporary scientists' use of the term artificial cranial deformation (e.g., Lekovic et al. 2007; Schijman 2005; Tubbs et al. 2006). Granted, the medical literature contains information about congenital anomalies that certainly qualify as cranial deformation (Krogman and İşcan 1986: 400). Craniostenosis, for instance, involves the premature closure

Getting a Head Start in LifePre-Columbian Maya Cranial Modification from Infancy to Ancestorhood

Figure 10.5. Frontispiece to John Bulwer's 1650 edition of Anthropometamorphosis.

(p.256) of one or more cranial sutures, which produces a steeple-shaped, keel-shaped, or asymmetrical appearance (Maugans 2002; Moss 1958). One type of craniostenosis, known as positional plagiocephaly, is induced by unintentional external forces that flatten infant occiputs. Repeatedly placing infants on their backs, for instance, will produce these changes (Maugans 2002). In such cases, parents often seek medical assistance to rectify a “deformity” that they regard as pathological despite medical evidence to the contrary (Maugans 2002): helmets may even be used to remodel “abnormal” infant skulls. Cosmetic surgery presents an alternative corrective, though admittedly an extreme one that may endanger the individual's health to a greater degree than the perceived abnor-mality. The irony here is that heads are indeed (re)shaped to fit with our own aesthetic ideals. Hence, my semantic nitpicking is directed not at descriptions of congenital disorders as deformations but rather at scientists' identification of marks produced by cultural practices as “deformations” (e.g., Eppley 1996; Gerstzen and Gerstzen 1995). Additionally, medical researchers continue to explore the possibility that cranial “deformations” produced neurological impairments in children (e.g., Lekovic et al. 2007; Schijman 2005). The specter of Bulwer's blockhead thus continues to haunt even contemporary scientific studies.

Of course, anthropologists are not innocent of such semantic transgressions (although see Duncan 2009; Saul and Saul 1991; Saul and Saul 1997). The use of ethnocentric language in many research inquiries may unwittingly suggest that the intent of the modifier was to recreate the abnormal, grotesque, and defective. When significance is reduced to aesthetic, the complex ideological structures and social interactions that normalize and justify such transformations often go unexplored. To this end, my consideration of Maya cranial shaping has stressed the importance of contextualizing modifications in space and time, as well as regarding skeletal remains not as analytical endpoints but as dynamic entities whose morphology and meaning changed throughout an individual's life course.

Concluding Thoughts

Body modifications, whether intentional or the product of mundane and habitual action, are telling about social identity formation and maintenance of “insider” status. Contrary to historical accounts and modern scientific inquiries, I suggest that intentional cranial shaping was neither deforming nor pathological but a practice of considerable cultural significance. Cranial shaping for the pre-Columbian Maya, in particular, may have figured into the process of becoming a viable member within a community. Soon after birth, (p.257) individuals would have been slotted into specific roles or prominent positions within their family. As the shaped crania of Individuals 34 and 35 illustrate, this status may have been shared by only a select few within the group. The repeated performance of certain practices later in life may have served to maintain related social identities during an individual's life, and prominence within the community would have in turn warranted assignment of an ancestral identity after biological death.

Stylistic differences within a larger region between tabular erect and oblique forms of cranial shaping perhaps signaled the complexities of social organization. The correlation of types with specific spatial location, architectural features, and material remains may offer evidence of sumptuary laws that regulated irreversible and indelible types of bodily alterations. Regardless of sociopolitical or economic differences, however, enactment of cranial shaping placed all who were modified on a path of identification that was preordained by modifiers. The permanence of in vivo cranial modification, then, provided a lasting reminder that far surpassed the moments of ritual or prosaic molding. For this reason, body modifications serve as important signs of identity formation, reiteration, and reformulation.

Of bodies born in postmodern moments, Bordo (1993) has argued that a paradigm of plasticity has come to replace understandings of the body's materiality as unalterable: that is, extreme bodily transformations—the body as “cultural plastic” (Bordo 1993: 266)—are specific to contemporary consumer capitalism and Western notions about individualism. Yet contrary to Bordo's premise, contemporary Western society is not unique in the links it forges between individual identities, material bodies, their plasticity, and cultural practices. The lesson learned from anthropological cases of bodily alterations, like that of pre-Columbian Maya cranial modification, is that societies through space and time—even societies without rampant consumer capitalism, philosophical individualism, advanced scientific technologies, and mass media imagery—have indelibly and extremely transformed bodies in the name of social norms, cultural values, religious or political ideologies, and aesthetic ideals.


The burials I discuss in this chapter were excavated from sites within and adjacent to the 250,000 acres owned by the Programme for Belize (PfB) in the Río Bravo Conservation and Management Area. I wish to extend my gratitude to the La Milpa Archaeological Project (LaMAP), Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PfBAP), and Chan Chich Archaeological Project (CCAP) for sharing data. Frank Saul and Julie Mather Saul, under whose guidance I (p.258) conducted doctoral research (Geller 2004), directed skeletal analyses for all three projects.

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