Elongated heads were a mark of elite status in an ancient Peruvian society

A study of 211 skulls from a pre-Inca society suggests head-shaping developed over time


GOING LONG  Starting around 1300, high-ranking members of a pre-Inca population increasingly had their heads bound into a narrow, elongated shape during infancy, a researcher says.

M. Velasco/Current Anthropology 2018

Bigwigs in a more than 600-year-old South American population were easy to spot. Their artificially elongated, teardrop-shaped heads screamed prestige, a new study finds.

During the 300 years before the Incas’ arrival in 1450, intentional head shaping among prominent members of the Collagua ethnic community in Peru increasingly centered on a stretched-out look, says bioarchaeologist Matthew Velasco of Cornell University. Having long, narrow noggins cemented bonds among members of a power elite — a unity that may have helped pave a relatively peaceful incorporation into the Incan Empire, Velasco proposes in the February Current Anthropology.

 “Increasingly uniform head shapes may have encouraged a collective identity and political unity among Collagua elites,” Velasco says. These Collagua leaders may have negotiated ways to coexist with the encroaching Inca rather than fight them, he speculates. But the fate of the Collaguas and a neighboring population, the Cavanas, remains hazy. Those populations lived during a conflict-ridden time — after the collapse of two major Andean societies around 1100 (SN: 8/1/09, p. 16) and before the expansion of the Inca Empire starting in the 15th century.

For at least the past several thousand years, human groups in various parts of the world have intentionally modified skull shapes by wrapping infants’ heads with cloth or binding the head between two pieces of wood (SN: 4/29/17, p. 18). Researchers generally assume that this practice signified membership in ethnic or kin groups, or perhaps social rank.

HEADY BURIALS In southeastern Peru, structures at the base of a cliff contained the bodies of presumably high-ranking members of a pre-Inca-era population known as the Collagua. These individuals gradually adopted a style of intentional head shaping that resulted in many of them having long, narrow noggins, a new study finds. David Rodríguez Sotomayor

The Callagua people lived in Colca Valley in southeastern Peru and raised alpaca for wool. By tracking Collagua skull shapes over 300 years, Velasco found that elongated skulls became increasingly linked to high social status. By the 1300s, for instance, Collagua women with deliberately distended heads suffered much less skull damage from physical attacks than other females did, he reports. Chemical analyses of bones indicates that long-headed women ate a particularly wide variety of foods.

Until now, knowledge of head-shaping practices in ancient Peru primarily came from Spanish accounts written in the 1500s. Those documents referred to tall, thin heads among Collaguas and wide, long heads among Cavanas, implying that a single shape had always characterized each group.

“Velasco has discovered that the practice of cranial modification was much more dynamic over time and across social [groups],” says bioarchaeologist Deborah Blom of the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Velasco examined 211 skulls of mummified humans interred in either of two Collagua cemeteries. Burial structures built against a cliff face were probably reserved for high-ranking individuals, whereas common burial grounds in several caves and under nearby rocky overhangs belonged to regular folk.

SHAPING UP About 300 years before the Inca arrived, low-ranking members of the Collagua people sometimes had their heads flattened at the back during infancy (left). More often, their heads were not modified (right). M. Velasco/Current Anthropology 2018

Radiocarbon analyses of 13 bone and sediment samples allowed Velasco to sort Collagua skulls into early and late pre-Inca groups. A total of 97 skulls, including all 76 found in common burial grounds, belonged to the early group, which dated to between 1150 and 1300. Among these skulls, 38 — or about 39 percent — had been intentionally modified. Head shapes included sharply and slightly elongated forms as well as skulls compressed into wide, squat configurations.

Of the 14 skulls with extreme elongation, 13 came from low-ranking individuals, a pattern that might suggest regular folk first adopted elongated head shapes. But with only 21 skulls from elites, the finding may underestimate the early frequency of elongated heads among the high-status crowd. Various local groups may have adopted their own styles of head modification at that time, Velasco suggests.

In contrast, among 114 skulls from elite burial sites in the late pre-Inca period, dating to between 1300 and 1450, 84 — or about 74 percent — displayed altered shapes. A large majority of those modified skulls — about 64 percent — were sharply elongated. Shortly before the Incas’ arrival, prominent Collaguas embraced an elongated style as their preferred head shape, Velasco says. No skeletal evidence has been found to determine whether low-ranking individuals also adopted elongated skulls as a signature look in the late pre-Inca period.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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