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

Why did the Olmec do it and how did it affect the person? Several researchers have suggested that this unusual shape may have designated elite status or family lineage and communicated spiritual power. Various depictions of gods represent them in human form but with more vertical, narrow cranial vaults. In particular, this head form, modeled by caretakers on their offspring, emulated the maize god whose cranium was stylized and exaggerated in artistic portrayals. Corn was the sustaining food source of the Olmec and the maize god is one of their most prominent deities. Skeletons, such as the boy exhumed at the site of Pampa el Pajón, Chiapas, show how this aesthetic ideal could reshape the actual contours of a human skull. A few modern medical experts have noted that we reshape some infants' crania with compression helmets today for other reasons, and that despite the unusual shape recorded in the Pampa el Pajón photos, the youth may not have suffered any long-term cognitive impairment. A drawing by Mirna Sánchez shows the hypothetical effects of cranial vault modifications on the overall silhouette and facial physiognomy, namely a bulging, towering forehead than is narrower than most normative types. The Worcester statuette is a reminder of this aesthetic ideal so entwined with how the Olmec imagined the physiognomy of their gods.

Image [drawing, left]: ©Mirna Sánchez & Vera Tielser, 'Olmec Head Shapes...' Latin American Antiquity 21:3 (2010) Next: Credits

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