The mystery of Peru’s elongated skulls finally solved?

elongated skulls

American researchers believe they have unlocked the secret of the mysterious elongated skulls discovered in Peru. According to their study, these cranial modifications were intended to symbolize membership to an elite group, thus helping to strengthen the sense of community and collective identity.

The mystery of the elongated skulls lights up a little more. You have probably already seen images of these skulls with an unusually stretched shape. Contrary to what some may suggest, we now know that they belong to real people. The latter would have suffered a voluntary deformation of the skull after their birth to lengthen their head. A practice much more widespread than we think.

Previous discoveries have indeed shown that this type of deformation has been practiced by different cultures around the world, from Asia to America via Europe and Africa. But the question as to why these people did it remained a mystery.

Fortunately, a study published in the journal Current Anthropology aims to shed new light on this mystery. Directed by a researcher from Cornell University in the United States, this work is more specifically concerned with a particular case: that of Collaguas.

This small ethnic community flourished in the Colca Valley in southeastern Peru between 1100 and 1450, about 300 years before the Inca empire developed in the country. It left behind traces and especially cemeteries where archaeologists have been able to uncover many skulls some of which were mysteriously elongated. The practice was confirmed by Spanish reports written in the 1500s that describe the heads of the Collaguas as tall and thin.

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Nevertheless, this ethnic group was not the only one of the region at the time. A second known as Cavana also lived there and it too seemed to have practiced this type of deformation according to the Spanish documents which describe the heads of the Cavanas as long and wide. The new study reveals today that this practice has proved much more dynamic than thought over time and across groups.

Carefully studied

To reach this conclusion, the specialists studied 211 skulls found in two Collaguas cemeteries. 97 of them date back to an early group that lived between 1150 and 1300 while the other 114 skulls date from a later period, between 1300 and 1450. The researchers were able to see that the deformations showed variations over the time. In the first group, 38 of the skulls were voluntarily modified, 14 of which were extreme.

Some skulls were slightly to noticeably elongated while others had a broad, squat shape. In the second group, however, 74% of the 114 skulls were modified and a large majority (more than 60%) showed a markedly elongated shape. This is not all because specialists have also drawn a parallel between the skulls and the social belonging of the individuals.

In the first group, 13 of the 14 highly elongated skulls belonged to low rank individuals while 21 of the less pronounced deformation appeared to be associated with higher ranks. The skulls of the second group all came from burials of the Collaguas elite.

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A practice that was spread among the elite

According to Matthew Velasco, lead author of the study, this suggests that low-ranking individuals were the first to adopt this practice. Each local group could then have adopted its own style of deformation until 1300.

After this period, finally, the deformation of the skulls would have more and more reflected the social status of the individuals: the important Collaguas would have privileged the elongated form and would have adopted it like a kind of signature, a visible symbol of belonging to the elites of this ethnicity. “More and more uniform skull shapes may have fostered identity and political unity among the Collaguas elites,” Matthew Velasco told Science News.

It should be noted that in the 14th century, the Incas began to encroach more and more on the territory of the Collaguas, probably pushing them to find ways to coexist with them rather than fight them. “In times of crisis and social upheaval, the creation of new kinds of collective identity can reinforce or destabilize political reintegration,” continued the bioarchaeologist. “This could have fostered cohesion among local elites and facilitated cooperation.”

According to specialists, cranial deformities were carried out in babies by wrapping their heads in bandages or between planks of wood. It was already assumed that this practice was used to symbolize belonging to a group or an ethnic group but this discovery brings a new insight. It does not mean, however, that all cultures throughout the ages used it for that purpose.

Emy Torres

Emy holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Michigan and currently freelances part-time for The Talking Democrat.