4b. Oddly-shaped head reflects actual Olmec practices of cranial deformation (1/2)

Many Olmec figures display mound-shaped crania, but only in recent decades have anthropologists learned more about how this artistic ideal was realized on some living infants. In the first two years of life, infants’ cranial bones have not yet hardened into place, especially at the point of conjunction on top of the head (the so-called “soft spot”) and at the back of the skull at the cranial sutures. According to the research of one anthropologist, Vera Tiesler at the Autonomous University of the Yucatan in Mérida, mothers strapped their little ones into compression cradleboards and bound their cranial vaults and the mid-portions of the faces horizontally. As a result, the young heads became high and narrow (but not reclined) before hardening, pear-shaped, in a form that is only practiced during the Olmec period. Later Maya skulls were also sometimes shaped but in a more reclined position, and some cultures in South America, the Paracas of Peru for example, bound infants’ skulls with softer materials to achieve an exaggerated horizontal position.

Images: ©Arturo Romano Pacheco, Pampa el Pajón, An Early Estuarine Site, Chiapas, Mexico (1980) with permission from Sra. Cármen Vázquez de Romano.

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