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


Cranial deformation practices are common in many areas of the world and are practiced for many reasons. The practice has mainly been documented in Egypt, Japan, South America, Mesoamerica, and some places in Europe.[1]

Anthropologists and other scientists have extensive knowledge of cranial deformation practices among ancient cultures. Some of the available information has been known for centuries. Although it is impossible to know the precise cultural environment, social organization, and religious conceptions that have led to this practice, it is clear that the practice is culturally influenced.[1]

Because of the plastic characteristic of the skull in newborns, skull modification was initiated during the first days of life and lasted for 2 or 3 years. This is done around the world to achieve specific adult head shapes.[3]

The first descriptions of cranial deformation among the Mayans were made by Spanish chroniclers in the 16th century. These descriptions (some of which are translated above) are historically invaluable,[5,11] but most are superficial, highlighting the "primitive" parts of the custom, and are indeed interpretations. There is a lack of primary information directly from the Mayan culture.

The cranial deformation practice was forgotten in the literature from the 16th century to 1843, when John L. Stephens published Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.[14] Stephens describes an artificially deformed skull that he found during an excavation. Based on skull collections and writings about the Mayan practice of cranial deformation, it is clear that the custom was at one time widespread.

The deformations were not uniform, probably because of the physiological responses of the children, the duration of the compression, and the particular characteristics of the deforming device. Despite the variety of forms found in the osteological evidence, Romano[12] says that only the oblique deformation is represented in the paintings of the classical Mayan period. This confirms that the cranial deformations were a permanently visible symbol of social affiliation.

Neurosurgeons have recently focused on the neurological effects of the deformations, but there is no scientific evidence of their having caused any neurological disability.[9]

From the point of view of the present, cranial deformation could seem to be a primitive practice. It may not be easy to understand why this custom was performed, but its practitioners found it socially and religiously appropriate. Doubtless, to the Mayans, the skull was a fundamental part of an individual's identity, and cranial deformation was elevated to the level of art.