Over the last year, images and videos of rather dubious three-fingered “mummies” in Peru sparked a flurry of social speculation about ancient aliens, alien-human hybrids, or some unidentified human subspecies or unknown ancient abomination from right here on Earth. However authentic or inauthentic they might be, the strange appearance of the “mummies” with long, bulbous heads might have its roots in a kernel truth.
It turns out that hundreds of skulls with elongated skulls have indeed been found in the mountains of Peru and catalogued by anthropologists throughout the years. DNA tests of the skulls have been surprising, but only in that they showed that these elongated skull people might have migrated from Europe where other elongated skulls have been found. Some anthropologists have even suggested that these skulls might represent an unknown human subspecies. While that much is still just speculation, new research published by Cornell University bioarchaeologist Matthew Velasco indicates that these elongated skulls might have been a type of status symbol to indicate the high social standing of their owners. Were these some type of elite human group? What was it about the shapes of these skulls that made them superior?
According to his article published in Current Anthropology, Velasco believes the practice of deliberately elongating skulls was widely practice among the elites of the Collagua people, the dominant ethnic group in Peru before the arrival of the Incas:
Greater standardization of head-shaping practices echoes broader patterns of identity formation across the south-central highlands and may have provided a symbolic basis for the cooperation of elite groups during an era of intensive conflict […] The symbolic boundaries enacted by head shaping intersected other forms of collective identity and likely contributed to growing social inequality prior to the period of Inca imperial expansion.
In other words, these ancient Peruvian cultures used intentional head shaping as a means of signalling higher social status, creating two distinct classes of people: lowly street urchin round heads, and golden toilet-owning stretchy heads. The evidence that they may have been higher status mainly comes from the observations that females with elongated heads suffered much less head trauma than females with round heads, and skeletons with elongated skulls showed evidence of a more varied diet. Furthermore, most of the elongated skulls have been found in Collagua burial structures close to cliff faces, while most of the round unmodified Collagua skulls have been found in caves or under outcroppings.
It’s pretty interesting to think about how the beauty standards and physical social signalling of today will be viewed by future civilizations. Orthodontic braces are pretty brutal if you think about it, as are tummy tucks or injecting one’s face with botulinum toxin to deaden facial muscles. These somewhat destructive appearance-altering procedures are typically only available to the wealthy. While we might look upon these elongated skulls as an antiquated and brutal practice, are we really any different?