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


The Mayans lived in what is now the southeastern part of Mexico and northern parts of Central America.[18] Pre-Hispanic Mayan culture is divided into 4 main periods: the Early Preclassic, Late Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. The Early Preclassic Maya is considered to date from 1400 to 1000 BC, the Late Preclassic period from 500 to 300 BC, the Classic period from AD 300 to 900 (when the Mayan cities reached their highest development), and the Postclassic period from AD 900 to 1540. We do not know at present precisely how the Mayan civilization originated. It almost appears as if it suddenly sprang into being, flourished, and then decayed just as suddenly. The practice of skull deformation seems to have been known from the earliest times.[8] Among Mayans, the meaning of deformation was not only aesthetic but also religious and social.[18]

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo,[11] a Spanish chronicler, reports an interesting conversation about deformation between one Mayan and an early Spanish missionary, who questioned the Mayan about the meaning of the custom. The native was asked why the heads of his countrymen were not like those of the Christians. He replied that when the children were born, their skulls were plastic and so they could easily be molded into shape, thus producing a boss on each side and a great depression in the middle of the head extending from one side to the other. "This is done because our ancestors were told by the gods that if our heads were thus formed we should appear noble and handsome and better able to bear burdens." According to Dembo and Imbelloni,[4] the Mayans used hard implements in their deformation techniques. Several techniques existed, but the shaping of the head in neonates was carried out mainly in 2 ways: by compression of the head with pads and adjusted bindings and by restraining the child on specially designed cradles.[10]

The Spanish Franciscan Diego de Landa described how the Mayans deformed the heads of their children in 1572. He describes the women as bringing up their children with the greatest roughness and says that as a rule the children went naked. Scarcely 4 or 5 days after birth the child was stretched out upon a sort of little bed made of reeds or strips of other material, and then the head was placed between two boards, one at the back and one at the front. These were then pressed together and fastened. For days at a time the child was thus left in suffering; Landa adds that sometimes so much pain was caused that the children died, and that he himself saw one who had openings behind the ears, a condition that, it was reported, was not uncommon (Fig. 1).[5]

Figure 1.

Photograph of Mayan figurine representing a woman with a child. The child is wearing a board on the forehead, which is part of a deforming device. (Figurine from Museo del Popol Vuh, ciudad de Guatemala. Catalog number 0379.) Photograph courtesy of V. Tiesler Blos.

According to experts, 2 main head shapes existed: erect deformation and oblique deformation.[17] Erect deformation (Fig. 2) is associated with cradle-boards, a deforming device that affected corporal mobility. The child was placed in a decubitus position, which is associated with lambdoidal flattening. The lambdoidal flattening was associated with erect deformation as a secondary, unintentional effect because of the position of the child in the cradle-board. The occipital flattening was often asymmetrical and was not limited to a single side but was noted on both the left and right sides.[15]

Figure 2.

Photograph of Mayan skull exhibiting a typical erect deformation with its characteristic lambdoidal flattening. Reproduced with permission from V. Tiesler Blos.

Oblique deformation (Fig. 3) was attained without affecting the mobility of the child. Instead, paddles were applied directly to the head. This type of deformation had several variants. The pseudoanular, bilobulated, and trilobulated variants were all obtained when a frontal board was employed together with a system of bandaging.[17]

Figure 3.

Photograph of Mayan skull exhibiting a typical oblique deformation with the frontal bone sloped backward in a continuing oblique line with the nasal bones. Reproduced with permission from V. Tiesler Blos.

Some archeological investigations link deformation types with specific periods. Oblique deformation began during the Preclassic period (500–300 BC). During the Classic period, both the oblique form (with its pseudoanular variant) and the erect form are present. In the Postclassic period, the erect form was dominant, and it seems that the technique was widespread within the Mayan territory and had few variants.

During the Classic period, evidence shows that skull deformation was characterized by a distinct social pattern (Fig. 4). The general population could only perform erect deformations. However, if children were destined to become governors, priests, or warriors or attain another high-status position, they were given oblique deformations. High-ranking Mayan families of the Classic period differentiated themselves from the lower classes with their head shape. This social hierarchy can be seen in pottery, figurines, drawings, monuments, and architecture, where characters with oblique deformation are dominant.[10] After the Classic period, this pattern was less pronounced, probably because of the influence of neighboring cultures.[12,17] According to some authors and based on the analysis of artistic representations, oblique deformation was meant to shape a child's head to resemble the head of a jaguar, a sacred animal and symbol of power for the Mayans.[13] Another hypothesis, based on analysis of paintings, is that the Mayans were trying to shape heads to resemble the head of the maize god, who was the symbol of fertility.[16] Vera Tiesler performed one of the largest studies of Mayan skulls. She examined 175 deformed pre-Columbian Mayan skulls and was able to determine gender in 140 (69 female and 71 male). She found that 127 of these had the erect deformation and confirmed that the oblique shape was linked to elevated social standing. The obliquely deformed skulls were frequently accompanied by a postcoronal sulcus caused by bandages used to constrict the paddle against the forehead.[17]

Figure 4.

Photograph of Mayan relief (originally painted) showing characteristic oblique deformity among governors.

The most remarkable morphological alteration is seen in the flattening of the frontal bone. The Mayas were naturally a brachycephalic people, and the custom of anteroposterior compression would promote this racial characteristic, causing the skull deformation to be displayed throughout life. The flattened skull is higher than nondeformed skulls of comparable age at death. Based on the figurines, paintings, and skulls that have been discovered, it seems that the greatest pressure seems to have been exerted upon the forehead. In many cases, the frontal bone sloped backward to an amazing extent, causing the nose to be in line with the retreating forehead, modifying the appearance of the entire face.

In the more isolated modern Mayan settlements, this custom is still practiced, though not to the same extent.