Indian Head Deformation

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Deformations of the human head have been known since the writings of Herodotus. They are divisible into two main classes, those of pathological and those of mechanical or artificial origin. The latter, with which this article is alone concerned, are again divisible into  un-intentional and intentional deformations. One or the other of these varieties of mechanical deformation has been found among numerous primitive peoples, as the ancient Avars and Krimeans, some Turkomans, Malays, Africans, etc., as well as among some civilized peoples, as the French and Wends, in different parts of the Old World, and both varieties existed from prehistoric through historic time to the present among a number of Indian tribes throughout the Western hemisphere. Unintentional mechanical deformations of the head present but one important, widely distributed form, that of occipital compression, which results from prolonged contact of the occiput of the infant with a resistant head support in the cradleboard.

Intentional deformations, in all parts of the world and in all periods, present two important forms only. In the first of these, the flat-head form, the forehead is flattened by means of a board or a variety of cushion, while the parietes of the head undergo compensatory expansion. In the second form, known as macrocephalous, conical, Aymara, Toulousian, etc., the pressure of bandages, or of a series of small cushions, applied about the head, passing over the frontal region and under the occiput, produces a more or less conical, truncated, bag-like, or irregular deformity, characterized by low forehead, narrow parietes, often with a depression just behind the frontal bone, and a protruding occiput. All of these forms present numerous individual variations, some of which are sometimes improperly described as separate types of deformation.

Among the Indians N. of Mexico there are numerous tribes in which no head deformation exists and apparently has never existed. Among these are included many of the Athapascan and Californian peoples, all of the Algonquian, Shoshonean (except the Hopi), and Eskimo tribes, and most of the Indians of the great plains. Unintentional occipital compression is observable among nearly all the southwestern tribes, and it once extended over most of the United States (excepting Florida) s. of the range of the tribes above mentioned. It also exists in ancient skulls found in some parts of the N. W. coast.

Both forms of intentional deformation are found in North America. Their geographical distribution is well defined and limited, suggesting a comparatively late introduction from more southerly peoples. The flat-head variety existed in two widely separated foci, one among the Natchez and in a few other localities along the northeast coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and the other on the N. W. coast from s. Oregon as far N. as s. Vancouver id., but chiefly w. of the Cascades, along Columbia r. The Aymara variety existed, and still exists, only on and near the N. w. extremity of Vancouver id.

The motives of intentional deformation among the Indians, so far as known, are the same as those that lead to similar practices elsewhere; the custom has be come fixed through long practice, hence is considered one of propriety and duty, and the result is regarded as a mark of distinction and superiority.

The effects of the various deformations on brain function and growth, as well as on the health of the individual, are apparently, insignificant. The tribes that practice it shows no indication of greater mortality at any age than those among which it does not exist, nor do they show a larger percentage of imbeciles, or of insane or neuropathic individuals. The deformation, once acquired, persists throughout life, the skull and brain compensating for the compression by augmented extension in directions of least resistance. No hereditary effect is perceptible. The custom of head deformation among the Indians, on the whole, is gradually decreasing, and the indications are that in a few generations it will have ceased to exist. See Flatheads. (A.H.)

MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. Web. 14 December 2014. - Last updated on Jul 18th, 2012


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