A Look at Mayan Artificial Cranial Deformation Practices: Morphological and Cultural Aspects

Samuel Romero-Vargas, M.D.; José Luis Ruiz-Sandoval, M.D.; Arturo Sotomayor-González, M.D.; Rogelio Revuelta-Gutiérrez, M.D.; Miguel Angel Celis-López, M.D.; Juan Luis Gómez-Amador, M.D.; Ulises García-González, M.D.; Raul López-Serna, M.D.; Victor García-Navarro, M.D.; Diego Mendez-Rosito, M.D.; Victor Correa-Correa, M.D.; Sergio Gómez-Llata, M.D.


Neurosurg Focus. 2010;29(6):e2 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Induced deformation of the cranial vault is one form of permanent alteration of the body that has been performed by human beings from the beginning of history as a way of differentiating from others. These procedures have been observed in different cultures, but were particularly widespread in Mesoamerica. The authors examined and reviewed the historical and anthropological literature of intentional deformation practices in Mayan culture. The Mayans performed different types of cranial deformations and used different techniques and instruments to deform children's heads. The most remarkable morphological alteration is seen in the flattening of the frontal bone. Some archeological investigations link deformation types with specific periods. This article provides a glance at the cultural environment of the Mayans and demonstrates the heterogeneity of this interesting cultural phenomenon, which has changed over time.


Permanent alterations of the body (such as dental modifications, scarification, mutilation, tattooing, body piercing, and other types of body art and ornaments) have been part of human culture from the beginning of history and have served as a way of differentiating oneself and one's tribe or clan from others. Lip piercing was practiced among African and American tribes and was a sign of social status. Vikings employed dental modification in order to look fearless and for aesthetic purposes. Induced deformation of the neonatal cranial vault is another example of these types of practices.

Artificial (also known as intentional) cranial deformation results from manual manipulation of the skull and/or from the application of a deforming apparatus. It is manifested in morphological changes to the cranial vault.[1] Artificial deformation can take many forms; Gerszten and Gerszten[7] discuss as many as 14 unique cranial shapes resulting from different methods of deformation. The practice of artificial cranial deformation has been documented on nearly every continent and may have begun as many as 30,000 years ago.[19] The practice of deforming newborn heads was present in the whole of the American continent[4] from North America to Patagonia, but cranial molding in neonates was most widely practiced in Mesoamerica. The Maya was the main Mesoamerican civilization, noted for its development of written language, architecture, and mathematical systems.[2]

The Mayans are among the most studied ethnic groups in the world. In many collections of Mayan skulls recovered by archaeologists, artificial cranial deformation is a common feature, and some collections show a diversity of deformation styles.[3] When Columbus saw some of the natives in the New World, he wrote that they had "foreheads and heads much broader than any people."[6]

In this paper, we analyze the historical precedents, mechanisms, different types, and role of cranial vault modification among the Mayans.