Head shaping: flattening

Head-flattening board, Melanau people, Sarawak, Malaysia, 19th century

Pottery figure, Chancay people, Ancient Peru, c. 1200–1450

[b]Top:[/b] Collected by Charles Hose and donated by Robert W. T. Gunther in 1897; 1897.5.1[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Purchased from the Stevens Auction Rooms in 1902; 1902.82.8Top: Collected by Charles Hose and donated by Robert W. T. Gunther in 1897; 1897.5.1
Bottom: Purchased from the Stevens Auction Rooms in 1902; 1902.82.8
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 because it is associated with beauty or status. There are two main types of artificial head shaping – the comical 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 or as illustrated here, by using a cradleboard.

The archaeological records show that in the Andean areas of Peru, both types of head shaping were known among men and women. This figurine is typical of the unglazed cuchimilco figures of the Chancay civilisation in the central coastal region of Peru, north of Lima, that prospered between AD 1200 and 1450. It has large ornamental earplugs and may have been dressed in rich textiles. The exact significance of the flat, bi-lobed head is unclear but since such figures were often found in graves, it is likely to have represented a particular virtue such as wisdom, beauty or godliness.

A device used to create this shape is the cradleboard, which flattens the occipital area at the back of the head. The cradleboard consists of one long flat piece of wood on which the baby is laid, and another part which applies the pressure: either another piece of wood, large smooth stones or, as shown here, dense pads of fabric. The pressure is sustained by leather straps or bindings. In this 19th-century example from Sarawak, the coin at the front was twisted to pull the strings tighter and increase the pressure. The mother would do this once a day for several weeks at times when the baby was sleeping.

Cradleboards were also used for head shaping among some Native American tribes. The Chinookan people inhabiting the Columbia River area in Oregon and Washington used cradleboards for the first year of a child's life to produce a wedge-shaped head. The baby was laid flat on a long board, and another board was placed on the head at the required angle and bound into place. For the Chinook a flat head signified wealth and tribal identity. The only people who did not have flattened heads were slaves and outsiders such as the whites, although the practice died out by the 1950s.

It could be said that head flattening is still happening in our own society. Fears about cot-death have led parents to ensure babies sleep on their backs rather than their fronts, and the increased amount of time that babies spend in the same position with their heads flat against a surface, be it a crib, carry-cot, car-seat, or pushchair, has led to a recognised plagiocephalic condition dubbed 'flat head syndrome'. Although unintentional and correctable it does, like many other head shaping practices from centuries before, stem from culturally embedded beliefs surrounding a child's welfare and health.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England