Object: Head Flattener

E/1956/2/53
Head flattener (betaneti)
Shipibo Indians
South America: Peru
Unknown date
Materials: Wood, cotton padding, cloth, string

This object is a head flattener made by the Shipibo Indians of Peru. It consists of a long narrow cotton pad attached to a wooden board which is then attached by strings to another square cloth pad. It would have been used to elongate the shape of an infant’s head.

The practice of head flattening, also known as cranial deformation, has a long and interesting history in cultures all around the world. It is thought to be the oldest form of body modification, dating back at least 9,000 years. While cranial deformation can occur naturally or accidentally after birth, many cultures choose to deliberately shape an infant’s head, generally because it is a sign of beauty or status. Head flattening, which has not been proven to cause any damage to the brain, has occurred on every continent in the world at some point in time. Pressure is applied to a baby’s skull during their first several weeks of life when the bones of the skull have not yet fused together. It is accomplished by using a cradleboard or a special binding board such as the one in the Ethnology Collection. This process gradually shifts the bones of the skull, forming an elongated shape. The bones then fuse together in that shape.

Papua New Guinea, Africa, Central America, and Australia are only a few places where cranial deformation has occurred. North American tribes, including the Chinookan people of the Columbia River area in Oregon and Washington, used cradleboards to produce a wedge-shaped head in a child. This practice died out by the 1950’s, but it illustrates the prevalence of this practice. Even ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek nobles practiced head binding as a statement of beauty. In the Andean areas of Peru, cranial deformation was a common practice for both women and men between AD 1200 and 1450 (before the time of European contact with Central and South America). The head flattener from the Ethnology Collection possibly derives from this fascinating tradition.

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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