The Ancient Peruvians valued the shape of the human head, with a teardrop shape to the skull prized as a mark of status. They were not the only ancient races to hold this belief.
Peoples of South America were not born with these strange, elongated skulls, rather these were artificially created. As a very obvious and distinct mark of status, they could easily identify the ruling elite. These special people were leaders, people of a higher rank and there to offer a focus to their communities.
One of the peoples under scrutiny by researchers is the Collagua. The Collagua inhabited the Colca Valley located in the south east of Peru. The Collagua practised the art of head shaping by attaching tightly bound pieces of wood to the heads of babies and infants so influencing how the head developed.
Whether as a reaction to this or as some sort of contrast, historians have also found evidence of another group called the Cavanas within this region that followed a slightly different practice of modification. They liked their skulls to be wide and flat as opposed to tall and elongated. The Spanish Conquistadors invaded in the sixteenth century and banned all of the head shaping fashions that they encountered.
The conclusions about the Collagua were reached through scientific studies, comparing entire skeletons to reach lifestyle conclusions. Amongst these include findings that indicated that those Collagua with distended heads ate a broader and more varied diet, suggesting a favoured place within the hierarchy. Those bones also revealed less evidence of physical injury commensurate with a level of protection and care afforded to higher status individuals.
The study of skulls which is called Phrenology has fascinated and interested researchers and scientists for many centuries and conclusions have always been drawn about the shape of peoples’ heads. Even in the 21st century, the phrase ‘egghead’ remains in use and is the name of a popular television quiz show still supporting the concept that a big egg-shaped head holds a large and intelligent brain.
As medical science developed, phrenology was largely discredited in the late nineteenth century but it experienced something of a revival amongst criminologists in the twentieth century. Phrenology sits within the field of Anthropological Criminology which supports the theory that the crime is somehow linked to the physical characteristics of the perpetrator.
The idea behind Phrenology was that different parts of the brain were attributed with distinct mental abilities or capacity. As the brain developed, so did the shape of the skull. A particular shape to the skull would therefore indicate either an over or under development of a certain part of the brain. An over development was viewed as a lump or bump and an under development as a dip or depression. This is something akin to the line that the Collauga were working along.
Phrenology always had its critics and dissenters even when there was little alternative knowledge offered by way of medical science. Phrenologists spent much time in the dissection room, analysing the brains of convicted criminals in relation to the shape of their skulls. Discredited now, it is easy to look back with all the advances in medical science and think of it as nonsense but at the time, with little to counter it, Phrenology held sway amongst a hardened group of believers.