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Cranial and Dental Modification among the Maya

Evidence of body modification can be seen in almost every culture throughout history. Some of the most common forms of body modification include tattooing, body piercing, the filing and reshaping of teeth, and the binding of different parts of the body such as the head or feet. When analyzing skeletons the only forms of body modification that can be seen is that of work done on the teeth and binding done to different parts of the body. The other examples we only have record of from pictures and ethnographic accounts since there is no evidence left on the individual’s skeleton. One culture that was heavily involved in all different forms of body modification was the Maya from the Yucatan region of Mexico.

Through pictorial and physical evidence there are many examples of tattooing, piercing, the shaping of teeth and inlay of jewels into them, and also of head binding. Based on skeletal evidence I will focus on the Maya’s processes of dental modification and also the process of head binding. What was involved with the process to modify Maya heads and teeth and why did the Maya go through these processes, did the individual choose to go through the process or was it something that was forced upon them? Did these forms of modification serve a purpose in society such as to indicate status or rank, or were they simply done for aesthetic purposes? Based on the findings of numerous excavations I will attempt to find out exactly what was involved with the Maya processes of cranial and dental modification.

Head shaping is one of the most distinctive practices associated with the Maya culture, anyone who has ever seen a picture or a statue depicting a Maya will notice the oval or otherwise elongated head. This is not just an artistic interpretation of how the Mayas wanted project the way that they looked. The modification of the shape of their head was an intense process that mothers put their children through often shortly after they were born. Of 1,600 Maya skulls that have been studied from 122 Maya sites, the shape of 90 percent of them have been artificially modified and males and females are equally represented (Tiesler 2009).

One unique aspect about the Maya cranial modification is that it is one of the only processes of Maya modification to be presented in an ethnographic source. This is an excerpt in which Spanish Bishop of the Yucatan, Deigo de Landa describes the process of a child’s head being modified as he witnessed it: “For four or five days after the child's birth they laid him stretched out on a small bed made of wands and there, with his face up, they placed his head between two boards, one at the back of the head, and the other on the forehead, between which they pressed it very tightly and held him suffering there until the head remained flat and molded, which happened after a few days. Such was the misery and danger to the poor children that some were in peril of their lives, for the author saw one whose skull had been opened behind the ears; and so it must have been with many of them” (Huff).

In addition to ethnographic reports and drawings depicting the process of cranial modification, there have been numerous studies examining the skulls of modified Mayas to try and learn more about the processes involved with altering the shape of the head. One study is a report by Christine White where she examined the findings of a dig performed by David Pendergast. The study consisted of 143 adult Maya from Lamanai in northern Belize. The area in the study was inhabited continuously from the Preclassic (2500- 1250 B.C.E.) to Historic (1520- 1670 C.E.) time periods but the skulls in the study date from between the Postclassic (1000 – 1520 C.E.) and Historic time periods because they were the only skulls that were considered observable material. The style of cranial modification that was used at Lamanai is a form of anteroposterior deformation that is commonly practiced at many other Maya lowland sites. This is the style that is typically seen on various forms of Maya art. The style is characterized by flattening the frontal and occipital bones, a bulge anterior to a depression along the axis of the coronal suture, lateral bulging of the parietals, and frequents depressions along the sagittal suture. Growth of the skull then occurs laterally in both parietal and frontal regions. It is believed that the process happened over a period of several months to a year and although no deforming apparatuses have been preserved, pictures of them have been found (White 1996).

Another study was a paper written at the 64 Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Chicago 1999. The meeting looked at a sample of 1,515 Maya individuals from 94 sties in present day Mexico that were studied from between 1992 and 1998. Their findings were similar to those of the study that Christine White reported on. 88.65 percent of the skulls analyzed appeared to be artificially modified. The study found that males and females had the heads reshaped at an equal rate and this was done to them in early childhood. The Maya used cradleboards, cephalic apparatuses, and similar instruments, the devices used to modify Maya heads were able to be reconstructed based on pre-Hispanic Maya representations and also by examining the characteristics of the skulls. There is evidence that the Maya people have practiced cranial modification since the Preclassic times. In the beginning of the Postclassic while the number of techniques practiced with tabular oblique deformation disappeared, the rate at which head shaping happened actually increased (Tiesler 1999).

While archaeologists agree on the techniques that were used to reshape the heads of Maya babies, there is still debate as to why parents forced their children to undergo the process and what the different techniques used to shape the heads mean. In the sample of skulls that Vera Tiesler and her team studied, they concluded that all levels of society practiced head shaping but they did find differences in head shape based on the region and time period they were found. Skulls from the Preclassic period were found to have tall, rounds heads that resemble the stone heads from the ancient Olmec society (Tiesler 2009).

There is a greater diversity found during the Classic period and Tiesler believes that this is because the head shape signifies community groups or regional differences. Slanted skulls appear to be the most popular in the lowlands, erect heads are most common in the highlands, and there are some examples with heads that were divided down the middle, front to back to create two distinct lobes (Tiesler 2009).

The observations that Tiesler reported in 2009, where she describes what she believes the reasons behind the different styles of cranial modification were, are similar to the ideas presented during the 1999 Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology that she was a part of. The meeting also found that the oblique head shape was most popular in lowlands, the erect style was most popular in the highlands, and at the site of Copan in the Western Honduras lowlands a mimetic technique is the most popular. When looking at Copan it was determined that the erect type of head was common on the outskirts of the site and the mimetic style was most common. Even still there was a third area, considered to be inhabited by outsiders, where a third style of skull is most popular. These findings seem to show that while the style of the head modification showed a difference among individuals in society, it was not an indicator of status (Tiesler 1999).

Based on the period in a child’s life that head binding would have started on them, William Duncan examined what he believes the reasons were for Maya head binding. The Maya believed that when children were very young their souls were not firmly anchored in their bodies and this made them vulnerable to harm. The Maya also believed that evil winds could harm children so all doors would have to be closed during the birthing process in order to prevent winds from entering the home and harming the child. The Maya believed that all objects, not just humans had an animating essence in them. Duncan believes that the reason why Maya practiced head binding was similar to placing a roof on a building, the Maya believed that they both protected against soul loss. Many of the names associated with the body are similar to the names that are associated with Maya houses and there are also similar rituals involved when a new baby is born and when a new house is built. Soon after a new baby was born they would be placed near a burning torch similar to the way new Maya temples were dedicated by having fire enter into them (Knudson 2009).

Duncan comments on the research that Tiesler did in 1999 when he gives his opinion on the reason for different types of head modification. He agrees that the different types of head modification were relevant to society but not to a person’s social status. He cites a ritual where babies would go through a ceremony to determine what their path in life would be. One thing that Duncan makes note of is that while the site Tiesler worked on had over 88 percent of the individuals with modified skulls, at other sites as much as 57 percent of the individuals are unmodified and burials of unmodified skulls between sites do not share similar characteristics. Finding burials with similar characteristics would mean that the individuals held a similar social status. Due to these findings, Duncan believes that cranial modification is a social indicator, indicating the region a person was from or possibly an occupation but not a sign of social status (Knudson 2009).

In addition to cranial shaping, the Maya also practiced dental modification. This could come in the form of filing their teeth into different shapes or putting holes in the teeth so that jade and other jewels could be placed in them. Based on archaeological findings it would appear that the process of dental decoration began in the Preclassic era and was common until the Postclassic era with about 60 percent of the total population engaging in some form of dental modification. Filing the teeth was found to be more common among females and the inlaying of jewels was found to be more common in males although both practices are found among each gender. Unlike cranial modification which happened equally among males and females, dental modification is more common among females with about 65 percent of females having modified teeth and about 58 percent of males having modified teeth (Tiesler 1999).

The process of filing teeth was still in practice when Europeans came to the new world and encountered the Maya, so there is some ethnographic evidence to indicate the process that was involved with filing teeth. Accounts tell that older women performed the process and that they used stone abraders and water to file the teeth as opposed to chipping away at them. Unfortunately the process of inlaying jewels into the teeth was less common than filing the teeth so there is no ethnographical record indicating how the process was performed or who performed the process. It is believed that hardened bone drills with water and sand or some other abrasive material would have been used to form the holes for inlays in teeth. Stones that were placed in the teeth could be jade, obsidian, pyrite, or turquoise and the stones were held in place with pressure or cement (Williams 2006).

Although it is not known for sure, most people believe that dental modifications were performed on the living rather on the dead as part of a funeral ceremony. The evidence to support this comes for dental disease that could sometimes develop on teeth that were drilled to deeply. Teeth that were drilled to deeply would have the pulp exposed and this would cause the tooth to become infected. Also if teeth were drilled to deeply cold and pressure would transmit to the pulp and nerve of the tooth more easily and because of the pain, lead to disuse of the tooth. Calculus deposits have been found on teeth that go into disuse, these deposit are most often found on the anterior teeth such as the incisors and sometimes the canines. There has never been evidence of dental modification found on the posterior teeth that were most often used for chewing (Williams 2006).

For many years Romera Molina of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico City has been studying examples of dental modification in the Americas. He has found over 1,212 teeth during his excavations. Among these teeth he has found sixty-two different patterns of teeth and organized these patterns into seven different categories A-G and each tooth in each category receives a number. Most of these teeth have come from Middle America, with only three coming from South America and three coming from North America. In addition to the different patterns of individual teeth, Molina also discovered that the teeth would be combined to form specific patterns within each individual jaw to add to the visual effect. Although many of the jaws that have been found are incomplete, Molina has still been able to identify 128 different patterns of teeth within the jaws (Stewart 1973).
(Molina 1986)

This sort of ingenuity has only been seen among the Maya, they were able to form perfect circular holes in the teeth and place the circular stones in them. Ecuador is the only other place that modification like this has been seen; they placed pieces of gold in large angular holes in the teeth. Modification in Ecuador has been seen starting much later than among the Maya so it is believed that the practice of dental modification started among the Maya and then moved to their neighbors (Stewart 1973).

There are numerous ideas as to why the Maya voluntarily went through such a painful form of modification. Stephan Houston states that a possibility for the “T shaped” incisors was because it stood for wind and an embodiment for life force. The Maya also believed that jade was able to purify breath and give the wearer the ability to speak eloquently. Hematite was popular with the Classic Maya (C.E. 250-900) and created a hard, glossy look among the teeth. Early Maya mostly practiced vertical filing on the teeth and Maya from the later period practiced a broad range of different patterns of inlays and teeth filings. It is noted that the Spanish talk about a perceived elegance that the Maya people had in regards to teeth filing. Many cultures around the world today still practice teeth modification and they will attest to the fact that the procedure is very painful and very slow. It is possible because the teeth modification has been found on adults that modified teeth is a symbol of maturity and an individuals ability to handle pain. Because of this teeth filing might have been seen as a right of passage among the Maya (Houston 2009).

Pamela Geller agrees that dental modification would have been very painful and this pain likely had something to with the process. She argues that although pain threshold does not vary cross culturally, but pain tolerance and behavioral responses to pain is reflected in a person’s culture. Even though it is possible that the Maya could have used different herbs and plants to make a pain reliever, chances are that this was not used and the pain that was associated with teeth modification was part of the process. Because the way that everyone experiences pain is unique to each individual, it is possible that when people got their teeth modified they went through a self transformation.

The earliest known site that has modified teeth comes from an area in northwestern Belize and all of the teeth found at this site were found on fully formed adult teeth. Because the teeth show the individual at the time of death and not at the time that they were modified, it is almost impossible to be able to determine how old an individual was when they were modified. Dental development determined that the youngest individual found with modified teeth was somewhere between fourteen and twenty. Only 25 of the 97 adults found at the site lacked any sort of dental modification so this would agree with other data that there was a relation between becoming an adult and teeth modification. Geller points out two items of interest relating to social status, modified teeth were found on individuals with an elevated status and also on individuals that could be perceived as commoners, elite individuals were determined based on graves, grave goods, grave location and building materials. It is also noted that when looking at Molina’s tooth chart, several of the teeth share similar characteristics. This means that it was possible for individuals to have their teeth modified and when their social status increases have their teeth modified a second time. It is possible that having their teeth modified multiple times would signify their worthiness to have their status in society increased (Gowland 2006).

Based on the findings from these multiply sources, it would appear that with body modification in some cases the Maya people would choose to have their bodies modified and in some cases it was forced upon them. Since all cases of head binding were performed when the individual was no more than a few weeks or months old they did not really have any say in the matter. The individual’s head would be placed between two boards at varying angles to form the head in the desired shape. Although we do not know the exact reasons for shaping their head, we do know that it had some sort of social significance and that it appears at about the same rate between males and females. It is doubtful that head binding was used to show a person’s status in society, but probably more likely that it was used to show that an individual was part of a certain “clan” or region since certain styles of head shaping appear to be more common in some regions as opposed to others.

On the contrary, it is most likely that dental modification was something that an individual chose to go through, or was given the right to go through. According to the current archaeological evidence, the youngest person that there is record of having dental modification done is between the ages of fourteen and twenty. We have no way of being able to tell how old individuals were when they went through the process since we only have record of their ages at time of death but modification has only been found on permanent, fully formed adult teeth. We also know that people were still alive when the modification was done because of infection that sometimes occurred from drilling to far into teeth. Because of this it is believed that dental modification was done as a sort of rite of passage into adulthood. There is dental modification seen in both males and females although it is slightly more common in general on females and filing appears more often with females and inlaying of jewels is more frequent with males. Also relating to social status dental modification appears in both upper class and common people, the only difference is that upper class individuals have more intricate work done.

Once you really take a look at the practices of Maya body modification, the processes are really not that unusual. People in our culture today invest millions of dollars a year on makeup and plastic surgery so that they can look like a famous movie star and get closer to what our society perceives is beautiful. There is still a high amount of individuals in our society that engage in body modification with piercings, tattoos, and scarification although usually not to the extreme that the Maya did. An excavation of the Maya ruler Pakal’s tomb reveals him to have a modified head, teeth filed to look like a “T” and a headdress so that he resembled the Maya Sun God (Miller 2009). The pain and effort that the Maya went through in order to achieve what they thought was beautiful makes our current society look like nothing. In their quest to achieve what they thought was beautiful and look like their gods, are they really any different than we are today?

Works Cited

Gowland, Rebecca, and Christopher Knusel eds. Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2006

Huff, Leah. “Permanent Body Modification Among the Maya.” BME. 11 November, 2009 < http://bme.com/ritual/990201/maya/perma.html>

Houston, Stephen. “Jaded Smiles.” Archaeology v. 62 no. 1 Jan/Feb. 2009: 41.

Knudson, Kelly J., and Christopher M. Stojanowski eds. Bioarchaeology and Identity in the Americas. Gainsville: University Press of Flordia, 2009

Miller, Mary. “Extreme Makeover.” Archaeology v. 62 no. 1 Jan/Feb. 2009: 36-42.

Romero Molina, Javier. Catalogo de la Coleccion de Dientes Mutilados Prehispanicos IV Parte. Collection Fuentes Instituto Nacional de Anthropologia e Historia. Mexico City, 1986.

Stewart, T.D. The People of America. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1973

Tiesler, Vera. “Head Shaping and Dental Decoration Among the Ancient Maya: Archeological and Cultural Aspects” 64 Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology. Merida: Autonomous University of Yucatan, 1999

Tiesler, Vera. “Beautiful Skulls.” Archaeology v. 62 no. 1 Jan/Feb. 2009: 39.

Williams, Jocelyn S., and Christine D. White. “Dental Modification in the Postclassic Population from Lamanai, Belize.” Ancient Mesoamerica v. 17 no. 1 2006: 139-151

White, Christine D. “Sutural effects of fronto-occipital cranial modification.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology v. 100 no. 3 1996: 397-410


submitted by: Jdubbs
on: 15 Feb. 2011
in BME Culture

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