Head shaping: lengthening

A mother binding her baby's head, Kandrian, New Britain, Papua New Guinea, 1930s

Skull, ancient Peru

[b]Top:[/b] From a photograph taken by Beatrice Blackwood in 1937 and donated to the Museum in 1973; BB.P.13.327[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Founding collection; 1884.86.9Top: From a photograph taken by Beatrice Blackwood in 1937 and donated to the Museum in 1973; BB.P.13.327
Bottom: Founding collection; 1884.86.9
An Arawe woman named Alola is seated on the ground, holding her 22-day old baby Awadingme. She is wrapping a vine creeper string tightly around a large piece of barkcloth on the baby's head in the process of head binding. This photograph was taken in the mid-20th century but Alola was continuing a years-old tradition in that part of Papua New Guinea.

Deformation of the skull can occur naturally in the foetal stage of pregnancy, or accidentally soon after birth and the resulting condition is known as plagiocephaly. However, some cultures (more in the past than in the present) choose to deliberately shape the head, usually as an association with beauty or status. There are two main types of artificial head shaping – the conical form and the flat-head form. Such modification has been practised on every continent at some stage in human history and neurological tests have shown that deforming the head in these ways is not necessarily harmful. Pressure is applied to the baby's skull during the first weeks of life when the bone plates are not yet fused, either using binding (as shown here) or by using a cradleboard. The archaeological records show that in the Andean areas of ancient Peruvian civilisations, both types were used – elongation in the Kartar valley and flattening in the neighbouring Moquegua valley.

Elongation of the head was practised not only in Mesoamerica and the New Ireland Province in Papua New Guinea, but also among the Kwakiutl and Salish people of the Pacific NW Coast, the Mangbetu of the Congo region, and the people of the New Hebrides islands in the Pacific, now known as Vanuatu. Once applied soon after birth, the tightly-wrapped bandages would be continually reapplied for several years until the desired effect was reached. For the Arawe people of New Ireland, head deformation was done for aesthetic purposes and does not seem to have had any magico-religious or class motivations associated with it; long heads were seen as attractive and girls' heads were usually longer than boys'. In contrast in Aboriginal Australia, an artificially elongated head symbolised intelligence, spirituality and high social status.

Head binding was known in Europe in prehistoric times and also among high-born ancient Greek and Roman families. Head-shape was important both for cosmetic and scientific trends. In the 15th century, it was fashionable for European ladies to adopt a 'lozenge'-shaped look, achieved through the clever visual trickery of a high, conical hairstyle and a shaved forehead and eyebrows. By the 17th century long heads achieved through artificial deformation were believed to hold more room for a bigger, and therefore more effective, memory.

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