Higher Human Forms: Skull Elongation

Pre-Inca Paracas skull, 10th Century BCE. DeAgostini/Getty

Humans are born hackers. From digital constructs of our own creation to something as natural as the carbon cycle, our highly-evolved brains are perfectly suited to manipulate intricate systems.

3rd century BCE.
PHAS/UIG via Getty

The human body was among the first systems we hacked, and we've never stopped tinkering with its design. Not only have we improved the health and performance of the body, but we've also adjusted its aesthetic and spiritual properties as well.

Just look to the elongated skulls of our ancestors. You'll find specimens such as the Paracas skull above and the Ukrainian skull to your right in grave sites around the world, and accounts of such practices sprinkled throughout recorded history.

But these are not examples of widespread birth defect or the coexistence of a conehead hominid, but rather evidence of artificial cranial deformation throughout human history.

And yes, the practice continues to this day.

Circa 1960
© Otto Lang/CORBIS

Just consider the image to your right: an African tribeswoman of the Mangbetu, an ethnic group living in Zaire between the Ituri and Vele rivers.

Note the elongation of her skull and that of her infant. We even see the bindings that produce such pronounced cranial distortion.

Why would a parent do this to a child? We'll answer that, but first let's nail down the science of artificial cranial deformation. I think you'll find it less barbaric than you'd expect.

The Science of Skull Elongation

Babies have soft heads, and it has everything to do with our bipedal stature and our gigantic tool-using, language-spouting, flesh-hacking brain.

An infant's skull features a system of soft spots called fontanels, which serve two key purposes: They make the head malleable enough to squeeze through the mother's pelvis and they allow breathing room for the further growth of the brain.

And grow it does! Young brains can even grow faster than young bones. Our skulls don't begin to fuse together until we're around a year old, and during that time they're suitable to artificial deformation [source: Barras].

The exact methods vary, but the principle is always the same: Wrap or bind the infant's head in such a way that the expanding skull takes an abnormal form. It's also the same process behind positional plagiocephaly (AKA flat head syndrome),which occurs when an infant sleeps too much in a single position -- as well as the Toulouse deformities caused by infant headbands in pre-20th century France.

We even see a modern medical variation on the practice when doctors use a corrective helmet to treat plagiocephaly.

None of these changes actually damages the child, but why do it at all?

Higher Minds, Taller Skulls

The origins of artificial cranial deformation are lost in the mists of prehistory, but we can learn much from archeological and modern sociological studies. As Colin Barras points out in his excellent BBC piece on the topic, it all seems to come down to cultural ideals of beauty, social status, intelligence and spiritual acumen.

(Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty)

Ideal human beauty is inherently subjective, so it's no more a a stretch to think a people would find tall skulls attractive than it is to fathom modern obsessions with ultra-skinny models. Just consider the sculpture to your right, depicting the daughter of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV. Note the elongated skull, present in the mummified remains of both Amenhotep IV and his son Tutankhamun. Depending on who you ask, you can chalk the shared skull shape up to heredity, artificial cranial deformation or extraterrestrial inbreeding.

According to the Australian Museum, artificial cranial deformation in aboriginal and oceanic cultures tend to stems from cultural values and motifs. The Vanuatu people associated elongated heads with folkhero Ambat, higher intelligence, greater social status and closer proximity to the world of the spirits. In Borneo, a flat forehead was a sign of beauty while the Mangbetu people of Africa, mentioned earlier, continued the practice up into the 1960s as a mark of beauty and social status.

The Vanuatu are among the few people left in the world to practice skull elongation, due in large part to the cultural influence and laws of colonial powers. But we still see the idea present in modern culture. Just look to the tall craniums of Star Trek's Talosians, Marvel Comics' Leader and H.P. Lovecraft's Evil Clergyman, among countless other examples. The idea still resonates.

Skull elongation represents an ancient example of humanity's core tendency to alter its own form and function -- to elevate itself to a higher human form.

Higher Human Forms is an ongoing blog series profiling the many fascinating ways in which humans have reshaped their bodies throughout human history. To quote plastic surgeon Joe Rosen, "The body is a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like, you change who you are."

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.