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Skull Modification

Body modification has been prevalent throughout human history and across countries and societies. I’m sure you’ve seen the images of Chinese foot binding, ear-lope and neck stretching, and of course tattoos. It’s a fascinating subject and the reasons for these modifications given by the people doing them are really interesting. However, there are plenty of writings and examples out there who will explore this subject much better than I can so I’m just going to focus on skull modification. Again, I’m not an expert in this area but it amazing what people are prepared to do to themselves.


One procedure that has also intrigued me is trepanation. This is where a portion of the skull is removed by a surgical procedure. This is achieved by scraping, drilling or breaking the skull, with scraping being the most prevalent. Many societies across the globe have practiced this and the procedure dates back to the Neolithic period, making it the oldest surgical procedure (Gross 1999). There are multiple theories on why this was used including curing headaches, convulsions and infections. Although this sounds like a horrific procedure many appeared to live for at least a period after the trepanation had taken place. This can be seen in skulls where bone growth has been observed around the edges of the opening. Please read the references below to get a more detailed look at this practice, particularly Arnott et al. and Ortner. It has also been noted that trepanation is sometimes difficult to diagnose due to the similarity to lesions in the skull produced by various pathologies, see Kaufman et al. for more information.

Cranial Modification:

I have only every seen a few skulls which have been purposely modified, and these were at an exhibition at the Wellcome Museum in London. I’ve seen them in textbooks and various articles but it was incredible seeing them up close. They definitely look alien like! However, we know that they have in fact been squashed/moulded/shaped to be that way for a number of cultural reasons. As with trepanation these misshapen skulls have been found across the globe and have dated back to 30,000 years ago (Romero-Vargas 2010).

As the skull bones in an infant have not yet fused they are still malleable. Therefore by using cloth and various methods of strapping pressure can be applied to the skull over childhood the natural shape can be changed. There have been many studies specifically looking at a population with regards to cranial modification. Here they look at which individuals have the modifications and the methods used. The answers to these questions can provide insights in to the social structure and ideals of a society. For example there is evidence that in the Mayan culture different members of society had different types of modification. The general population had ‘erect’ modification (flattening of the back of the skull) whilst those who were set to become priest, warriors or other high-ranking members of society had ‘oblique modification’ (flattening of the frontal bone). See the article  below by Romero-Vargas et. al for more info.

Although these practices look unusual, and even alien, to us they can give use an insight into past cultures. They can also make us aware of how malleable the human skeleton, and skull, is. It is easy to forget that although the bones and body are strong humans have the ability to modify them. An interesting debate could be had about the varying ways in which we do this and why. How does this compare across cultures and belief systems, and what classes as a modification? An interesting and lengthy debate for another day!

Recommend Reading:

Arnott R., Finger S., Smith C.U.M. (2003). Trepanation. History, discovery, theory. Lisse: Swets and Zeitlinger.

Gross, C. G., (1999) ‘A Hole in the Head’ in Neuroscientist 5: 263-269

Kaufman, M. H., D. Whitaker, et al. (1997). “Differential Diagnosis of Holes in the Calvarium: Application of Modern Clinical Data to Palaeopathology.” Journal of Archaeological Science 24(3): 193-218.

Ortner, D. J. (2003) Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal remains, 2 Ed. San Diego, Academic Press

Ayer et al. (2010) ‘The sociopolitical history and physiological underpinnings of skull deformation’ in Neurosurg Focus 29 (6): 1-5

Romero-Vargas et. al. (2010) ‘A look at Mayan artificial cranial deformation practices: morphological and cultural aspects’ in Neurosurg Focus 29: 1-5
Torres-Rouff, C. (2002) ‘Cranial Vault Modification and Ethnicity in Middle Horizon San Pedro de Atacama, Chile’ in Current Anthropology 43: 163-171
White, C. D. (1996) ‘Sutural Effects of Fronto-Occipital Cranial Modification’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology 100: 397-410 


2 thoughts on “Skull Modification

  1. Pingback: Skull modification – it’s a real thing! | Beauty in the Bones

  2. Pingback: Cranial Modification | Beauty in the Bones

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