As usual, a Daily Mail article caught my attention with its first line, "A mummified elongated skull from Peru could finally prove the existence of aliens." The purpose of this kind of opener, of course, is to get people to read the tripe the Mail peddles. According to the article, "three anthropologists agree: it is not a human being." Well, if three unnamed Spanish and Russian anthropologists agree, then it must be an alien.
|Alien? Uh, no. (Photo: The Nation)|
|An example of CVM from Cuzco (Credit)|
The Collas…still use the practice of forming the heads of children in diverse manners or figures with much superstition, and in some places they make them very long that they call cayto uma, making them thin, and making them come to the form of a narrow and long bonnet that they call chucu; in other places they make the heads flat and wide in the front. That is called paltauma; of these they are generally from Cabanaconde…
|Photo: ANDINA/Percy Hurtado|
Why are we so fascinated by cranial vault modification (CVM)? After all, we do weird things to our bodies and have for at least thousands of years - from the tattoos of Oetzi to the Chinese practice of foot binding to piercing our skin, most of us have modified our bodies in a permanent way. What's interesting about CVM, though, is that it was performed on young children who had no choice in the matter. Rather than a marker of personal identity like a tattoo or a piercing, CVM indicates that a person belonged to a certain group, it's a way of marking someone as belonging to you and your community. And that just doesn't sit well with contemporary American ideas of personal agency and choice.
|Can you see the "deformity" on the left? (Credit)|
|Adorable child with a "cranial remodeling orthosis" (Credit)|
Insisting that the skeleton of an Inca child is "non-human," "otherworldly," or "alien" demonstrates a complete lack of ability to think critically about one's own culture. The things we do to our bodies today are not natural - they are cultural. The way we dress, the way we talk, the actions we perform are all external indications of "self" - humans are a fascinating mix of biological and cultural traits, and we constantly and often subconsciously signal to anyone and everyone our most salient features, a short-hand for who we are and what we want. Body modification is an important concept in understanding the relationship between the individual and the group, and it would be nice if journalists recognized that CVM is simply one of many things humans have found to assert their identity.
Biggs WS (2003). Diagnosis and management of positional head deformity. American Family Physician, 67 (9), 1953-6. PMID: 12751657.
Cook, ND (2007). People of the Volcano: Andean Counterpoint in the Colca Valley of Peru. Duke University Press.
Gerszten PC, & Gerszten E (1995). Intentional cranial deformation: a disappearing form of self-mutilation. Neurosurgery, 37 (3). PMID: 7501099.
Ortner, D. (2003). Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Academic Press.
(Special thanks to Matt Velasco for his interesting lecture on cranial vault modification in my Health and Disease in Ancient Populations class on 11/17/11. This post is a mixture of his summary of the practice, my notes, our lengthy discussion after class, and additional source material.)