cranial modification

Written in Bone: The Study of Identity and Gender

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague in my department asked me to give a guest lecture to her anthropology of women and men class. Recently, I have taken a keen interest in investigating gender and identity in the Andes, and my colleague asked that I illustrate to her students how studying human bone may inform us on gender.

My understanding of gender is drawn mainly from archaeological theory. Every archaeologist who addresses constructions and maintenance of gender from the material record knows of the influential work by Conkey and Spector (1984). According to them, gender archaeology (also referred to as “feminist” archaeology) emerged in response to the intentional and/or unintentional propagation of culturally particular ideas about gender in interpretations and reconstructions of the past. The male perspective is taken to be representative of the culture. The female view, on the other hand, is portrayed as peripheral to the norm (Conkey and Spector, 1984). In the archaeological record, women were seen as the recipients of social influences and passive in social processes (Scott, 1999). Oftentimes, women’s domestic and maternal identities are conflated. Gender archaeology strives to make visible woman and their own agency and their construction of their own social world (Scott, 1999). Reinvestigations of human life with females at the center of analysis (Conkey and Spector, 1984) have the potential to elucidate the commonalities and diversity in women’s lives and to examine women’s spheres of power and influence.

There is a ton of information you can gather from the study of human bones. In my particular field bioarchaeology, it is my goal to understand and construct what daily life was like for living populations in the past. We study bones to identify patterns of ill-health, what individuals ate, their daily activities such as work load and occupation, and even identify patterns of trauma. To do this, we have to have a lot of knowledge about the human osteology, focusing mainly on the hard tissues of the body: bone and teeth, because these are what mostly likely preserves archaeologically.

There is a basic principle to the bioarchaeological study of human bone: bones are universal, concrete essentially biological materials that also serve as archaeological artifacts from which specialists may elucidate past behaviors (Sofaer, 2006). Bone is made up of an organic substance and inorganic mineral, the organic material provides bone it’s “give”, while the bone’s inorganic mineral gives bone it’s structure. So the bone’s capability to be modeled, or plasticity, enables bone to be shaped, but there is a limit to how much you can shape bone. In other words, the bone’s plasticity is not limitless

For example, a fracture occurs when the bone’s ability to withstand force fails. The bone’s plasticity has been exceeded. On the other hand, consistent pressure, or force to the bone over time molds the bone, like during cranial modification (a process of binding the skull bones of a growing infants to change the shape of the head). Changing the shape of the skull is a process takes time and requires continuous pressure being applied to the bones of the head. In this case, the bone’s plasticity has been slowly shaped to produce the desired shape.


Above: Fracture of the humerus (arm): plasticity has been exceeded


Above: Cranial modification: Bone’s capability of being molded

So based on these biological principals and cultural practices, the bones may be studied to inform us on both natural processes and cultural phenomenon. So what can bone tell us about cultural phenomenon such as identity, gender in particular?

Archaeologists and bioarchaeologist consider identity a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership and relationship to other group members. These identities include gender, age, status, ethnic affiliation, and so on. Who a person is, their identity, is made up of not one, but coexisting social identities that are brought together, reordered, and disaggregated over the course of a person’s life (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008). All identities are accompanied by group and individual expectations of how a person should behavior and their role in society.

For example, codices such as the Mendoza codex illustrate that in Aztec households, men and women were assigned different duties with the understanding that both sets of activities were necessary for the success of the family. Male activities generally occurred outside the house: farming, fishing, long-distance trading, and making war. Female activities were mostly connected with the house and its associated courtyard: sweeping, cooking, and weaving. Despite this strict division, childcare was not considered a particularly female activity. Women were responsible for educating their daughters, and men were responsible for training their sons.


“Gender Roles among the Nahua in the Codex Mendoza [Painting],” in Children and Youth in History, Item #276, (accessed December 13, 2016). Annotated by Dana Leibsohn

So my question is whether or not these identities be written on the bone. Consistently preforming certain tasks and behaving in ways that are deemed appropriate may result in permanent changes to the skeleton. In fact, others have noted that bones may be useful for examining identities. Reicher and Koo (2004) note that permanent changes to the skeleton reflect shifts in social identity, cultural beliefs, social dynamics and boundaries, and political conformity or deviance. In their evaluation of new directions in bioarchaeology article, Knudson and Stojanowski (2008: 411) recognize that “[s]ocial identities are written directly on the body in the form of body modifications” (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008: 411). It seems reasonable to suggest that we can examine the skeleton to investigate what these permanent changes convey about the social and cultural beliefs of people in the past (and even present).

In “Binding Women: Ethnology, skeletal deformations, and violence against women”, Pamela Stone Explores how certain ideas of what constitutes womanhood are made normal by society, and these practices strive to “bound women’s bodies and behaviors”, and are consider forms of violence against women. Stone draws on three examples: Chinese foot-binding, the neck rings worn by ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, and tight lacing of corsets.

Stone makes the point that bioarchaeologists usually study past societies looking for evidence of conflict using “traditional” examples of trauma, meaning they look for types of wounds that occur before (ante-mortem), at or around the time of death (peri-mortem), and cut marks, in other words, wounds sustained during conflict, warfare, and interpersonal violence in the past. Stone shrewdly notes that identifying conflict in the archaeological record is more complicated, as violence, coercion, and repression of a group of people may not always result in these traditional examples of violence.

Study of violence in the bioarchaeological record places emphasis is placed on men and their pursuit of resources, power, and prestige while the roles and motivations of women are neglected (Martin et al., 2010). Women are traditionally only discussed as victims of violence because they are believed to be much less violent than men, which some research suggests may not be entirely accurate (Warner et al., 2005). Male with injuries are assumed to be warriors and female injuries represent women who were victims of violence. Even if women are less violent than males, it is possible that both males and females utilize violent behaviors as a means of obtaining and securing desired outcomes (Martin et al., 2010).

It seems likely that those in power may perpetuate certain acts to immobilize or limit the agency of those not in power by upholding and perpetuating forms of structural and cultural violence. How do they do this? Stone suggests that literally “binding women” was an example of cultural and structural violence that served to limit female power and agency

Those in power constructed of ideas such as the “fragile female” and by deforming and deactivating the body they limited the physical mobility of the female body. Those in power also enforced beautification; female bodies were modified, deformed, or changed in such a way to fulfill ideas of beauty and worth. In this way, we can study the changes and modifications in female bodies as proxies for how structural and cultural violence impacted women and how female gender and identity was expressed.

Foot-binding is a classic example. The origins of foot-binging is a little murky, but several sources agree that the practice began during the Sung Dynasty, when court dancer Yao Niang bound her feet to mimic shape of the new moon. It was practiced only by elite women, but later in time it was available to all classes of women. In fact, become a selling point for prostitution (particularly appealing to American and European sailors). Though it was outlawed in 1911, some women insistent on binding the feet of their female children. Binding began in childhood, mothers bound feet of their daughters as early as age 5 because the bones were more malleable at that age. Tight wrapping starting at the instep and compressed the foot, turning in the four smaller toes in a longitudinal manner, ultimately stunting the foot’s growth. Toes often lost when the circulation was cut off, often created a gangrene and ulcerous state of the outer two toes. Binding took two years, but bandages worn for life. The idea foot was three inches in length. The practice resulted in permanent modification; the foot could not be returned to original state.


Altered shape of foot and produced gait that relined on thigh and buttock muscles. Long term causes included higher rates of low femoral neck bone density and higher incidence of hip fractures due to falls resulting from the loss of stability from their tiny feet. These risks and issues also coalesced with a lack of mobility resulting in a lack of weight-bearing activities, which are both known to result in poor bone health.

The neck ring tradition of Southeast Asia also had detrimental effects on women’s health, yet persists today. Many Padaung (Kayan) people are now refugees in northern Thailand,  originally from Myanmar (Burma). The neck-ring tradition of this group may have originated as a means to protect women’s necks against tiger attacks. The practice immobilizes females, rendering them helpless and chronically stressed. The custom, like foot-binding, reflects wealth and status and is tied to marriageability and is therefore a reflection of a woman’s identity and beauty. This practice is performed by a girl’s mother, with other female family members, to ensure their daughters are properly acculturated into their belief systems. Stone references a study from 1979, in which Dr. Keshishian published a radiograph of a 43-year-old woman who had worn the brass rings since the age of 5. Her vertebrae remained intact, although stretched, and the rings sat on her ribs and clavicles (collar bones), pushing them down at almost a 45-degree angle to give the illusion of a longer neck. Secondary effects of the neck rings include shorter faces, narrowing of the mandibular widths, inclinations of upper and lower incisors, and changes in palatal heights and mouth opening. As the clavicles are a sort of “coat hanger” of the body, changes in their position and shape also impacts the lungs, and may inhibit breathing or change pitch of voice.


Some documentaries and modern tour groups that visit villages where these women reside note that some women enjoy upholding this tradition but others feel pressured to endure the painful custom to make a living. Human rights groups claim the refugee status exploits women who can’t find other work. According to “Ethical Travel”:

“An estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay between $8-16 to stop by these hill tribe villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly. Instead, neck-ring-wearing-women sell trinkets, crafts and photo-ops, essentially working in a live-in gift shop. Residents receive an allowance of food and toiletries and profit from handicraft sales, and women wearing brass rings earn an extra salary. While some say the villages give Kayans a paid opportunity to retain their culture, others condemn this arrangement for exploiting stateless women and children in exchange for tourist dollars.”

These practices demonstrate a a desire to define gender roles and maintain beauty and marriageability. Yet, we must consider power dynamics in play, that women (typically mother and female family members) preformed and perpetuated the act of modifying female bodies. Ideas of gender and body modification may inform us how the social structure (those in power) inform individual how to behave. A circular connection emerges: Individuals themselves, be it mothers, female family members, or the males who find these bodily changes desirable, influence and dictated what are the expected ways of behaving. Those behaviors also reinforce the ideals set by those in power.

I have been wondering whether or not I can use human remains from archaeological contexts along with artifacts to investigate identities such as gender. Conkey and Spector (1984) note that gender is a system of social rather than biological classification that varies cross-culturally and changes over time in response to a variety of conditions and factors. Agarwal (2012) also recognizes that gender identify in the past is a malleable and dynamic construction that is not locked in with biology. What is obviously problematic with bioarchaeology and the study of gender is how researchers separate the biologically determined male and female bodies from the socially constructed genders of the archaeological bodies. That is one of the many questions I hope to answer as a graduate student and in my career. Nevertheless, I am confident that navigating this tricky problem to further investigate the links between gender and the human body may inform us on the powerful ways in which identities are created and maintained across cultures and even through time.

Cited Readings

Agarwal, S.C. (2012). The Past of Sex, Gender, and Health: Bioarchaeology of the Aging Skeleton. American Anthropologist 114(2): 322-335.

Conkey, MW. and Spector, JS. (1984). Archaeology and the Study of Gender. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7: 1-38.

Knudson, K. and Stojanowski, C. (2008). New Directions in Bioarchaeology: Recent Contributions to the Study of Human Social Identities. Journal of Archaeological Research 16:397-432.

Stone, P. (2012). Binding women: Ethnology, skeletal deformations, and violence against women. International Journal of Paleopathology 2:53-60.

Reischer, E., Koo, K.S., 2004. The body beautiful: symbolism and agency in the social

world. Annual Review of Anthropology 33, 297–317.

Scott, E. (1999). The archaeology of infancy and infant death (Vol. 819). British Archaeological Reports Limited.

Sofaer, JR (2006). Body as a Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.


Ancient Aliens: Lovable idiotic entertainment or potentially detrimental to archaeological integrity?

Two days ago, a Peruvian news and tourist site called “Peru this Week”  published an article claiming to have undisputed evidence that aliens lived and thrived in ancient Peru.  According to the curator of the Paracas History Museum and contributor to this History Channel show Ancient Aliens Brien Foerster, he claims that a geneticist (who wanted to remained anonymous) believes that the mtDNA extracted from modified crania belonging to individuals of Paracas culture (located on the south coast of Peru) isn’t human. Today, the same writer (Rachel Chase) published a response to her piece called, “Calm down, the Paracas skulls are not from alien beings,” and I found it to be very informative. Chase stated that several small, lesser-known news sources where reporting on Foerster’s “information,” so she thought she’d comment on the claims because it seemed like a fun, silly story.

I was pleased that she followed up with yesterday’s nearly-diabolical article with some basic facts about Foerster’s education (and lack of archaeological training), intentions behind releasing such a controversial story to the media NOT in a peer-reviewed journal, and the fact that he is a fervent contributor to The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens. She succinctly concluders her piece with:

“Don’t use an historical oddity as a cheap hook for your tour company, or to sell books. If your goal is to help enrich humanity’s knowledge of our ancient past, then share your information with us instead of releasing only selected snippets of admittedly preliminary results. Otherwise, we have no reason to believe you.”

Speaking as an aspiring bioarchaeologist who has spent three research seasons working in the Andes, I have heard the baseless claims that individuals with enlarged and elongated cranium weren’t actually human, but extra terrestrials a surprising number of times.  Well-founded, tireless research efforts, and common sense from mainstream and educated archaeologists, anthropologists, historians have proved that individuals can, and did, intentionally shape the malleable crania of infants in many parts of the world throughout time.  Misinformed conspiracy theorist continue to insist that there is a “debate” among archaeologist and mainstream culture about the origin of these modified crania when there is none.

Conspiracy theorists insist that there is no evidence to explain why people intentionally shaped their heads, but there is both historic and bioarchaeological evidence that this practice existed. The earliest example of cranial modification in the Andes dates to about 6000 years ago, and is found among individuals of the Paracas culture, as well as the Nasca, Wari, and Inca.  After the Spanish arrive in South America in the 16th century, chroniclers (such as Pedro Cieza de León, Bernabé Cobo, Garcilaso de la Vega), wrote that natives had abnormally-shaped heads and preformed the practice of cranial-shape modification on their children.  According to bioarchaeologist Debora Blom, “early Spanish chroniclers described cranial shape modification as a cultural atrocity, most tended to discuss it as an overt sign of group affiliation, important in distinguishing regional, ethnic, and/or kin group differences (see Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24 (2005) 1–24). Additionally, there is evidence of cranial modification in North America (see with “cradle boarding”) and among the Maya (who believed that shaped heads made one more attractive and may have protected against soul loss; see Duncan’s article).

Ex. of Cradle boarding

There is a massive amount of physical evidence to support that humans intentionally re-shaped their heads, so much that there is even a methodological standard used by bioarchaeologists to classifying head-shapes (see Buikstra and Ubelaker’s Standards, 1994).

An infant is born with six separate cranial bones: the occipital, two parietals, two temporals, and one frontal bone, so that the infant may pass through the birth canal.  Over time, the edges of these bones ossify and fuse together. During infancy the cranial bones are pliable, allowing for individuals to bind and shape an infants head with rope, boards, and even padding.  Bioarchaeologists find crania that have rope and padding depressions in the otherwise flat bone and have even found the materials used to re-shape the head.  The evidence is there!

Ex. of modified crania

You may be wondering why don’t archaeologists simple ignore these absurd sensationalized theories? Because it is disrespectful to the profession and such baseless  challenges make it seem as if archaeologists aren’t legitimate scientists.  The social sciences have enough problems as it is, between legitimizing what we do to receive funding and garnering public support.  There is a disconnect between the dusty arcane academic journals filled with specialized jargon and communicating the intellectual merit archaeology has to improving our understanding of human history, achievement, and potential to the everyday person. That is why media venues such as National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, and NOVA, are so vital. However, when channels like “The History Channel” masquerade as the absolute authority on the past and sensationalize the “sexiest” moments and people in history for the shock value and rantings, many people don’t distingues between main-stream social scientists and those who have more eccentric beliefs.

Then there is “Ancient Aliens.” From Chase’s article, she quotes archaeologist Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews:

“I find it incredible and frightening that a worldwide distributed television channel that bills itself as ‘The History Channel’ can broadcast such rubbish as Ancient Aliens. If it were an entertainment programme, I’d have fewer worries (although it would still make me cross); it is the implied authority of the channel (‘The History Channel’, not just any old ‘History Channel’) that makes the broadcast of this series so potentially damaging […] A channel that is making claims for its authoritative status, which offers educational resources, has a responsibility not to mislead its viewers (no doubt its executives think of them as ‘customers’). That responsibility is one that all makers and broadcasters of supposedly factual television have, but one that few of them take seriously: the responsibility to check facts.”

I am tired of spending many-a-dinner-party explaining, for the umpteenth time, that I do not excavate aliens.  I believe that it is exceptionally ethnocentric to believe that the Inca, Paracas, Moche, or any ancient people were not intelligent enough to construct such awe-inspiring monumental structures or advanced enough to develop complex societies and civilizations.

Last August, I was at a dinner party. I should note that everyone present had at least a college degree, and many had completed advanced degrees.  I was the only archaeologist there, so my friend’s brother asked me about what I do. I gave my 90 second elevator speech, and everyone began the ask me questions, most along the lines of “what is the coolest artifact you have ever found?” and “how old are those sites compared to the Egyptian pyramids?” Then, one of the men in attendance asked me, “so what do you think about the theories that the aliens built Machu Picchu and all those deformed heads?” The man in question had been a, what is a polite way to say this? Oh yes, A PAIN, the entire evening.  I told him that those theories have zero supporting evidence. Programs (like Ancient Aliens) falsely state their historical legitimacy in order to garner viewers and rantings, so people believe these ridiculous assertions. Last I said that to believe that humans aren’t capable of such amazing feats is ethnocentric. When the Europeans arrived in the Americas, they had to discredit the local population’s religion, intelligence, and way of life. Only then could the Europeans establish their authority over the indigenous population.  The same racist viewpoint persists, and now, people are so willing to believe that just because you are famous and on television, you must have some sort of credibility. Why watch a blustery academic in tweed talk about Inca masonry techniques when you could listen to some guy talk about alien abductions? Which is the sexier topic? I am pleased to report that my response silenced that guy, and hopefully made him think twice about believing everything he watches and reads.

Shows like Ancient Aliens and conspiracy theories are entertaining in their own way. Their claims give me the opportunity to teach the public fascinating cultural practices of the past.  I know, and many of my peers know, that these sensationalized claims are simply a way to grab the public’s attention, and make money. However, I worry that these un-scientific challenges to the archaeological profession attempt to discredit the legitimacy and benefits of the scientific exploration to the past. I don’t want my vocation to become a joke.

Cited articles

Blom, Deborah, Embodying borders: human body modification and diversity in Tiwanaky society. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24 (2005), 1-24

Duncan, William, Charles A. Hofling, Why the head? Cranial modification as protection and ensoulment among the Maya, Ancient Mesoamerica, Vol. 22. Issue 01 (2011) pp 199-210