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William N. Duncan and Charles Andrew Hoing

Ancient Mesoamerica / Volume 22 / Issue 01 / March 2011, pp 199 - 210

DOI: 10.1017/S0956536111000162, Published online: 05 October 2011

Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0956536111000162

How to cite this article:

William N. Duncan and Charles Andrew Hoing (2011). WHY THE HEAD? CRANIAL MODIFICATION AS PROTECTION AND
ENSOULMENT AMONG THE MAYA. Ancient Mesoamerica, 22, pp 199-210 doi:10.1017/S0956536111000162

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Ancient Mesoamerica, 22 (2011), 199–210
Copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2011



William N. Duncana and Charles Andrew Hoflingb

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, East Tennessee State University, 223B Rogers-Stout Hall, PO Box 70644, Johnson City,
TN 37614–1702
Department of Anthropology, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Carbondale, IL 62901–4502

Recent attempts to study cranial modification have suggested that the practice was a part of embodiment and socialization among the Maya.
Comparison of colonial and modern Maya childbirth and socialization practices supports these arguments. We suggest that the next
question to be asked is: “Why was the head specifically targeted for modification among the Maya?” This paper argues that one of the
motivations behind cranial modification among the Maya was to protect newborns from injury. We present evidence from colonial
documents and ethnographic studies on midwifery showing that animating essences resided in the head and that newborns were
particularly at risk for soul loss and injury from evil winds. Further we present data on metaphoric polysemy between the human body and
houses to argue that newborn humans were much like newly constructed houses in their susceptibility and that both required ritual
ensoulment. The construction of the house roof parallels cranial modification. This likely has parallels in Classic Maya times, with some
temple dedications and the construction of vaulted roofs with capstones, and suggests that the need to guard against soul loss has pre-
Columbian roots.

Most research on cranial modification may be classified under one children would grow. Third, we provide evidence from Mexican
of four headings (after Torres-Rouff 2003): (1) description and colonial documents and contemporary midwifery studies suggesting
classification; (2) the impact of the practice on health; (3) assess- that the head was targeted because it was at risk for soul loss and
ment of the morphological repercussions of cranial modification; injury from evil winds. Animating essences were located in the
and, (4) attempts to understand the practice as one aspect of embo- head, and young children in particular were at risk for losing
diment. The last approach has proved the most fruitful in advancing those substances or having them harmed. Finally we consider meta-
our understanding of the meaning of cranial modification. Authors phoric polysemic associations between the human body and archi-
working in the Maya area, such as Tiesler (1999), have suggested tecture among the Maya. The polysemic associations suggest that
that cranial modification was an important part of the social con- both buildings and children needed to be ensouled and have those
struction and lived experience of the body. Indeed in many cultures, animating essences protected or risk losing them. We argue that
continual modification of different aspects of the body ranging from this has implications for Maya archaeology because it reflects one
cranial modification, to scarification, to less permanent forms, such motivation for temple dedications with fire rituals and the sub-
as cutting the hair in a certain style, helps mark realization of certain sequent use of vaulted roofs with capstones.
social roles or statuses (Joyce 2000, 2001). We agree with these
arguments, and believe that the next question to be asked about
cranial modification is: “Why the head?” Why was the head a PREVIOUS STUDIES
locus of modification? There are surely different answers for differ-
ent cultures, and this paper focuses primarily on the area in which Descriptive and Classificatory Works
we work, Mesoamerica, and the Maya in particular. This paper Prior to the first half of the twentieth century the majority of the
has four parts and reflects a four-field anthropological approach to works on cranial modification asked a variety of basic questions con-
the problem. First, we review the study of cranial modification, cerning how and why it was done, and as such were generally
paying particular attention to Mesoamerica and the Maya area. descriptive and or classificatory (see Torres-Rouff [2003];
Second, we compare colonial Yukatek, modern Yukatek, and Gerszten and Gerszten [1995]; Goodrich and Tutino [2001]; or
modern Tzotzil practices associated with childbirth and socializa- Tubbs et al. [2006] for general reviews). At roughly 400 B.C.,
tion. This agrees with the aforementioned studies and strongly Hippocrates (Hutchins 1952) was among the earliest to describe
suggests that in pre-Columbian times head shaping was a normal the practice, noting that a group he calls the Macrocephali used ban-
part of rituals designed to help embody social roles into which dages to shape children’s heads. Similar isolated descriptive reports
were made by Herodotus, Aristotle, and Pliny (McGibbon 1912),
E-mail correspondence to: duncanwn@etsu.edu and continued through to relatively recent times (Blackwood 1939;

200 Duncan and Hofling

Goldstein 1940; Hewitt and Lawrence 1911; Wilson 1876). With the although the most recent papers on the subject found no evidence
exception of Girolamo Cardono’s attempts in 1557 though (Gerszten for increased osteological (Allison et al. 1981; Gerszten 1993) or
and Gerszten 1995; sometimes spelled Cardano [Dingwall 1931]), neurological pathology among individuals with modification
comparative analyses would have to wait until the 1800s when a (Blackwood and Danby 1955; for reviews in different time periods
number of authors attempted to categorize different types of see also Dembo and Imbelloni 1938; Flower 1882; Tommaseo and
cranial modification. Gosse (1855, cited in Dingwall [1931]) Drusini 1984; Torres-Rouff 2003). The notion that cranial modifi-
created 16 categories. Lunier (1869, cited in Dingwall [1931]) and cation might have pathological repercussions is only marginally rel-
Magitot (1885) each separately made classifications of 10 types. evant to the Maya, though Feindel (1988:218) speculated that
Topinard (1879) argued that there were four primary types with sub- resulting brain damage could have contributed to the Maya collapse.
types for a total of nine categories. Researchers have continued
attempts to categorize or assess types of cranial modification into
Morphological Effects
the 1900s (Allison et al. 1981; Comas 1960; Hrdlička 1912;
Neumann 1942; Stewart 1948), however the most frequently cited A third line of inquiry has been to assess how cranial modification
early work of this type among Mesoamerican researchers is that of influences skull morphology. Some studies have discussed the
Dembo and Imbelloni (1938). The goal of all of these classifications general biological impact of cranial modification on the skull as a
and descriptions is to identify differences in shape and the techniques whole (Björk and Björk 1964; Moss 1958; Rogers 1975; Tiesler
that would have caused them (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). 1995). Other researchers have focused on specific aspects of
The earliest works on the subject in Mesoamerica were also growth and development in the context of modification. Early
descriptive. The first known observations of cranial modification studies by McGibbon (1912), Otteking (1924), and McNeill and
in Mexico were from the 1830s, from Mitla, Oaxaca (Romano Newton (1965) considered how the temporal bone and cranial
1974). Soon thereafter, in 1843, Stephens described a modified base were influenced in particular by the practice. Later studies
cranium from Ticul in Yucatan. Romano (1974:202) notes that have followed up on these works (Antón 1989; Schendel et al.
other publications describing isolated finds continued through the 1980). Cranial modification’s influence on cranial suture closure,
1800s from elsewhere in Yucatan. The description of isolated complexity and wormian bone frequency (Antón et al. 1992;
finds and calculation of frequencies for assemblages continued Bennett 1965; Gottlieb 1978; O’Loughlin 2004; White 1996), dis-
throughout the 1900s (e.g., Dávalos 1944, 1946, 1965). Given the crete traits (Ossenberg 1970), and endocranial vascular pattern
considerable time depth for the practice in Mesoamerica—as far (Dean 1995; O’Loughlin 1996) have all been examined. Other
back as 7,000 years ago at Tehuacan (Tiesler 1998)—authors were studies considered the effects of cranial modification experimentally
also interested in documenting spatial, temporal, and demographic in animals (Pucciarelli 1978) and craniometrically (Falkenburger
trends in the use of different types of modification (e.g., Alva et al. 1938). This topic was pursued in Mesoamerica in particular by
1987; Peña Gomez and Lopez Wario 1989; Romano 1972, 1973a, Comas and colleagues (Comas 1966, 1969; Comas and Marquer
1973b). Romano (1974) found that the tabular erect form was the 1969; Tiesler 1998). More recent inquiries into the morphological
most common prior to contact in Mexico overall, with oscillations repercussions of cranial modification by Cheverud (Cheverud
rising in frequency during the Preclassic (2500–300 b.c.) and et al. 1992; Cheverud and Midkiff 1992) and Kohn and colleagues
Postclassic (a.d. 900–1500) periods relative to the Classic (a.d. (Kohn et al. 1993; Konigsberg et al. 1993; see also Frieβ and Baylac
300–900) (Romero Molina 1970). Annular forms of modification [2003]) have applied more sophisticated mathematical analyses to
appear in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the Middle Preclassic period (which determine how different styles of cranial modification influence
Romero Molina [1970] dates to 1200–300 b.c.). More recent the overall growth of the skull, including the face and mandible.
works have considered similar questions. Tiesler (1998, 1999)
found multiple varieties of modification present from the
Preclassic through the Classic periods, although tabular oblique
modification appears to have been discontinued in the Postclassic. Although all three of the aforementioned lines of inquiry have shed
light on various aspects of cranial modification, we still do not fully
understand the motivation behind the practice for most areas,
Implications for Health
including Mesoamerica (Buikstra 1997). Historically, the two
The second line of inquiry for researchers interested in cranial modi- most common answers are for aesthetics and for vertical and hori-
fication was whether cranial modification influences health, intelli- zontal social differentiation. Torquemada (1943:581, 583), com-
gence, or psychology. In their review of early works, Dembo and menting on this practice among various indigenous groups of the
Imebelloni (1938) noted that there was an initial association New World, reported that it is associated with nobility, suggesting
between culturally modified crania and pathological ones—such as that variation may have reflected social status—at least in some con-
those exhibiting microcephaly. This line of thought likely gave rise texts. Landa reported the custom of head-binding was widespread,
to opinions, such as that of French physician Achille-Louis- and at pre-contact Chichen Itza, Mayas with flattened foreheads
Francois Foville, who argued that cranial modification caused ail- were distinguished from Mexicans without this trait (Tozzer 1941:
ments ranging from meningitis to epilepsy to insanity (Dembo and 88). This is supported by iconography in which Maya figures
Imbelloni 1938). Others, such as Gustav Retzius (Dembo and (seen, for example, in the Oval Palace Tablet from Palenque in
Imbelloni 1938) and Hrdlička (1912) argued that there was no differ- Figure 1a) have differently shaped heads than outsiders (seen, for
ence in intelligence between individuals with modified and unmodi- example, in Stela 11 from Seibal in Figure 1b). Tiesler (1998,
fied skulls. Hunt (1965) found that the degree of cranial modification 1999) also considered intrasite variability in terms of social
does not seem to influence the length of the femur in infants. factors. She found that individuals buried in what are thought to
The debate has continued for some time with varying arguments be elite burials exhibited no erect varieties of cranial modification
and cases for and against the negative impact of modification, at Copan. Burials on the periphery of the site were much more
Cranial Modification as Protection and Ensoulment among the Maya 201

Figure 1. (1a) Maya figures seen in the Oval Palace Tablet from Palenque (after Schele and Freidel 1990:Figures 6 and 7); (1b) Non-Maya
figures represented in Stela 11 from Seibal. Contrast the different representations of the Maya and non-Maya individuals’ head shapes
(after Graham 1996:34).

likely to exhibit erect varieties. In Patio D in the 9N-8 group of the body modification difficult, but Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987:6)
Las Sepulturas residential district of the city, an area thought to have identify three common perspectives: (1) the body as individual experi-
been inhabited by outsiders (Lenca speakers) (Gerstle 1988), only ence; (2) the body as a social canvas and symbol; and, (3) the body as
one of 14 crania were modified in a fashion similar to burials else- a political “artifact.” These divisions may or may not reflect emic rea-
where in the patios (Tiesler 1999). lities depending on the cultural context, but heuristically the schema is
Such intrasite patterns, along with the high percentage of modi- useful. Archaeologists interested in mortuary practices have increas-
fied crania throughout the Maya area and absence of sex-based ingly begun to take advantage of these viewpoints (see Hollimon
differences, led Tiesler (1999) to several conclusions. There was 2001; Meskell 1994, 2001; and Raharijaona and Kus 2001 for com-
no clear pan-Maya association between cranial modification and mentary on the respective foci) including those studying cranial modi-
hierarchical social status, although within some sites the type of fication. Geller’s (2004:387) suggestion that cranial modification may
modification reflected social status (Tiesler 1999). However, have been used to mold individuals for gender and later occupational
cranial modification reflected and drew horizontal social lines, roles in northern Belize, by placing “the modifiee down a path of
such as those between different ethnic groups. In light of the social identification predetermined by the modifier,” is one such
absence of sex-based differences and, since cranial modification example. Joyce’s (2000:474–475) view that Aztec children were
must occur in infancy, it was likely performed exclusively by “[p]resented at birth as raw materials … that were shaped into body
females. Finally, head shaping was a common part of growing up ornaments,” is another such example.
in Maya society. Cranial modification was a way of influencing The notion that the body is always in a dynamic state of potential
the individual’s body and lived experience to embody and display is relevant to questions about cranial modification because there
all of the appropriate messages that were part of being Maya. This were no universal patterns across the Maya area. Tiesler’s work in
last point is important because it is one more grounded in cultural particular indicates that cranial modification was used to create
theory than earlier avenues of inquiry and thus opens up the discus- and transmit multiple messages at different times and spaces in
sion to the full range of possibilities that may be relevant to the the Maya area. Each of the aforementioned social reasons identified
causes and effects of cranial modification. as motivations for cranial modification have data to support them.
Changing the biological body (in the largest sense including all Thus in addition to social reasons, there may be a host of other poss-
forms of covering and altering) is done for a variety of reasons cross- ible motivations for the practice. Houston and colleagues (2006:45;
culturally, including “propriety, sacrality, beauty, or status” (Turner see also Taube 2000) recently suggested that the head was shaped to
1980:112). As Turner (1980:112) notes “the body, as the common make it look like corn, reflecting the fact that the human body was
frontier of society, the social self, and the psycho-biological individ- made of maize. It is easy to envision a scenario in which a child of
ual, becomes the symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialisa- ascribed rank had his or her head modified to make it look like corn,
tion is enacted.” Body modification not only reflects but also creates to place a headdress and diadem on it at the time of accession
aspects of an individual’s identity, whether they are related to age, (Houston et al. 2006), and to make it symbolically easier to wear
gender, or horizontal or vertical social status within or between a tumpline (tumplines were used by gods to carry time, which is
groups. Indeed Turner’s (1980) description of divisions in Kayapo one of the burdens of rulers) (Rice 2004:53, 60–63, 149). This
society between the sacred and secular, more and less prestige, would also, then, involve an attempt to reflect social status and
the social and the natural are all created (“played out” in Turner’s mold an individual for an occupation later in life. It would also be
words [1980:139]), in part, by dress and body modification. Thus, difficult to discern attempts to influence occupation and gender as
the lived experience and development of bodies is so fundamentally described by Geller (2004) in northern Belize since they are both
social that bodies cannot simply be regarded as a biological canvas part of an individual’s social development. Each of these scenarios
on and through which social realities are constructed. Rather, some has merit, but they also fail to explore why the head was used in the
authors have argued that that bodies only exist as current potential- first place. Comparing ethnohistoric and modern descriptions of
ities of a constituting social ‘labor’ (Haraway 1991:10; see also childbirth and socialization sheds light on why the head was tar-
Csordas 1994; Sofaer 2006:23–29). The open-endedness of this geted for modification. The notion that children were vulnerable
view makes constructing and testing comparative statements about and needed to be protected from soul loss and evil winds is not
202 Duncan and Hofling

exclusive to any of the aforementioned scenarios, but it does Tzotzil Maya children of Chiapas underwent a very similar
provide insight as to why the head was initially targeted for sequence of events. Midwives assisted in childbirth, after which
manipulation. the child was immediately bathed, censed, and dressed in clean
clothes (Vogt 1993:20). The rite that followed established the
gender identity of the child, initiated the socialization process, and
helped fix the innate soul into the new body. The midwife rubbed
Descendents of the lowland Maya speak languages of the salt twice on the top of the baby’s mouth, and presented the child
Yukatekan and Ch’olan-Tzeltalan branches of the Mayan language with three red chilies, giving much needed "heat" to the still
family. Therefore ethnohistoric and ethnographic documentation of "cold" body (emphasis added; Vogt 1993:20). Stross (1998:35)
these groups is especially relevant for interpreting archaeological mentions that the closely related Tenejapa Tzeltal Maya placed a
data relating to their ancestors. From Diego de Landa’s early colo- bit of beeswax on the top of a newborn’s head soon after birth so
nial accounts of the Maya Indians of Yucatan, we learn that mid- that evil spirits would not bother it. The Tzotzil next performed a
wives (female shamans) assisted in childbirth and babies were rite similar to héetz-méek’, in which tools associated with gender
washed immediately after birth (Landa 1959:58; Tozzer 1941: roles are touched to the infant’s hands in order to establish gender
129). He further states that four or five days after they were born, identity and begin socialization and the fixing of the child’s soul
the mother put the baby’s “head between two small boards, one in the body. Baptism, the most important childhood ceremony,
on the back of the head and the other on the forehead, between was performed by a priest and involved godparents. Baptism was
which they compressed the head tightly,” until “the head remained believed to fix the innate soul in the infant’s body. The three
flat and molded, as was the custom of all of them” (Landa 1959:54; systems are compared in Table 1.
Tozzer 1941:125; see also von Winning 1968). Tiesler (1998: Table 1 demonstrates strong parallels within these systems which
30–31) noted that a pre-contact Mayan clay whistle appears to rep- involve purification, ensoulment and socialization of children as the
resent a child with head boards straddling its mother’s hip, a pos- beginning of embodiment in Maya society. Head molding occurs at
ition called héetz-méek’ in modern Yukatek. After the head was a period early in the child’s life when the child’s soul is not firmly
molded, the children were taken to a priest in order to determine fixed in its body and before the child is a full social being. It is only
the child’s destiny and future profession, as well as to receive its after head binding that the child is named by the priest, marking a
childhood name (Landa 1959:54; Tozzer 1941:129). Mayas rite of passage in Mayan personhood. Bonavides Mateos (1992:
received different names later in life, after a rite similar to baptism 404) also interprets head molding as a rite of passage. However,
was performed between ages 3–12 for girls and perhaps at the strongest parallel among modern Maya appears to be the
roughly the same ages for boys (Tozzer 1941:102). After baptism Yukatek héetz-méek’ ceremony, which marks a transition from a
they could be married (Landa 1959:54; Tozzer 1941:102, 129; relatively unformed social being in infancy, to the fixing of
Roys 1940). Boys wore a white bead stuck to the hair on the top gender and occupational roles. Development of gender and work
of their head until the baptism ceremony, when it was cut off by roles continues to be emphasized throughout the Maya area.
the priest (Tozzer 1941:102). Baptism was an important ceremony Among contemporary Tzutujil for girls, sticks from a loom are
involving a priest and four old male assistants called Chaks, as well placed over the child’s head. Also after birth, mothers wrap their
as godparents. Baptism took place in a sponsor’s house, which was newborns tightly “with arms at the sides and legs stretched out”
ritually purified with sweeping and offerings of maize and incense to make them strong for work (Paul 1974:284). The question
(Tozzer 1941:102–106). During the ceremony the Chaks put a piece
of white cloth on top of the children’s heads, their foreheads were
anointed with sacred water, and then the priest removed the cloth.
Table 1. Comparison between colonial and modern Maya childbirth and
Twentieth-century accounts of childbirth and socialization
socialization practices.
among the Yukatek Maya are similar in many respects (Redfield
and Villa Rojas 1934:182; Villa Rojas 1945:140). Midwives Colonial Yukatek Modern Yukatek Modern Tzotzil
assisted the mother at childbirth, after which the child was immedi-
ately washed and clothed. Next, the child was named after the patron Midwife assists in Midwife assists in Midwife assists in
saint of its birthday according to the Catholic calendar (Redfield and childbirth childbirth childbirth
Villa Rojas 1934:182; Villa Rojas 1945:140). In Quintana Roo, it Baby immediately Baby immediately Baby immediately
was the godparents’ duty to consult the town scribe to determine washed washed washed
Head molded Baby carried in arms Gender and
the child’s name. Baptism was an extremely important rite per-
occupational roles
formed during infancy by a priest with the assistance of godparents. fixed, begin fixing soul
In Quintana Roo, baptism occurred at the age of one month (Villa Patron saint determines Patron saint determines
Rojas 1945:144). Special care was taken to protect newborns and name name
their mothers from sickness-bearing evil winds. Babies were Baptism with priest and Baptism with priest and
carried across the arms for the first three or four months of life, godparents (one month) godparents, fixing soul
after which a ceremony called héetz-méek’, occurred, in which the Priest determines Héetz-méek’ ceremony to
child was handed to its godparent of the same sex, who placed name and future encourage future gender
the child straddling one hip. The godparent then placed different profession roles (5 months)
objects associated with adult gendered work roles in the child’s Baptism with priest,
assistants and
hand to encourage its future aptitudes. For example, a machete
was placed touching the hands of a boy, and a grinding stone in
Marriage Marriage Marriage
the hand of a girl. After the héetz-méek’ ceremony the child was
carried straddling the mother’s hip. Marriage occurred after puberty.
Cranial Modification as Protection and Ensoulment among the Maya 203

remains, though, as to why the head needed to be shaped in order to the day of animation, when the child gained tonalli, a part of the
carry the appropriate messages. child’s destiny is also created—ranging from potential for authority,
to wealth or health (Furst 1995). Ultimately it is difficult to demon-
strate the pre-Columbian origin of concepts like evil winds.
However, the parallels between the human head and architectural
There are a variety of reasons that the head could have been and components as portals for animating essences as well as related fire-
likely was targeted for manipulation (see above). One reason that drilling ritual in architecture have clear antecedents in the
has not received very much attention is the need to protect recently pre-Columbian record (Grube 2000; Stuart 1998). These strongly
ensouled newborns. The Mesoamerican worldview was constantly suggest that Mesoamerican concepts of heat precede European
in motion, in cycles of birth and death, termination and regeneration contact, at least in part. Similarly, ideas concerning the deleterious
(Mock 1998). Everything that came to be needed to be animated or effect of evil winds have non-European roots, as indicated their
ensouled, and would eventually be terminated. This includes indi- presence among traditional shamans throughout Mesoamerica,
viduals, caves, mountains, houses, some ceramics, etc. (Mock which is not to deny syncretism with European humoral medicine
1998). Stross (1998) notes that when buildings were constructed, (Dow 2001:74–76).
one of the last things that occurred prior to building the roof was Another characteristic of tonalli though, is that it could be
killing a chicken and placing it in the hole under the center pole manipulated or diminished. Furst (1995) and López Austin (1988)
for the roof. This animated or ensouled the building, after which demonstrate how newborns in particular were at risk for loss of
the roof was placed on the building. Humans were no different in tonalli through the top of the head. This may stem from the fonta-
their need for ensoulment. nelle being open in newborns. After birth, newborns were kept
For the Maya, and indeed across Mesoamerica, the head was the near a torch to add to their heat. Lighting something from this
seat of some portion or aspect of what we might call a soul (Furst torch would have had the effect of diminishing the tonalli of the
1995). Mesoamericans did not have one specific concept that corre- child (Furst 1995). López Austin (1988:221) also notes that “[t]he
sponds to the Western notion of the soul (Furst 1995; Geller 2004; hair of sick children was allowed to grow as a head cover to avoid
Hinojosa 1999; for specific case descriptions in the Maya area see the tonalli’s departure … [i]n a similar way, one of the severest pun-
Guiteras Holmes 1961; Vogt 1965; Watanabe 1989). Rather there ishments meted out to delinquents was to cut off their hair, thus
were a number of soul-related substances involved in animation exposing them to a loss of tonalli.” When the tonalli left, it “pro-
(Duncan 2005). Houston and Stuart (1998; Houston et al. 2006) duced an empty space they thought could be observed in a cranial
have argued that the translation for the Maya b’a(h) or baah depression” (López Austin 1988:227). This was rectified in part
glyph can mean ‘self’, ‘person’, or ‘head.’ Baah can literally refer by pushing up on the roof of the mouth, a practice which is still
to the body or head; it can refer to the highest ranking status individ- done by some immigrants from Guatemala and Honduras in the
ual in an organization; or it can be used as a signifier of the “essen- United States today (FitzSimmons et al. 1998).
tial identity” of a person in Maya society (Houston et al. 2006: Do the Maya have exactly the same concept as the Mexica
58–72). The last sense is most important here because it relates to tonalli? Perhaps not, as Geller (2004:240) notes; however, there
the larger point that this animating essence or essential identity are clear similarities between tonalli and Maya soul concepts. The
may be harmed, lost, or even taken and manipulated (Furst 1995; head was often used as a signifier for the animating essences or
Read 1998). essential identity of an individual. Maya souls could also leave
A clear example of the potential for manipulation of animating the body or be diminished. The soul leaves Totzil speakers
essences and need to protect newly ensouled infants is found through the tongue after death (Nash 1985:131). Ch’ulel, or “indes-
among the Mexica. The Mexica have a concept called tonalli, a sub- tructible soul” (Houston et al. 2006:35; Plank 2004:138) leaving the
stance which resides in the head. Tonalli does not translate directly body was associated with sickness (Guiteras Holmes 1961).
into Spanish concepts for soul (la alma or la ánima), but rather is Similarly way, a co-essence that may be associated with disease,
associated with heat and destiny (Furst 1995; see also López left the body during sleep (Houston et al. 2006). In Comalapa, in
Austin 1988). For example, hot wind is called tonal ehecatl (Furst the Guatemalan highlands, boys’ hair could not be cut before
1995). Furst (1995) makes the significance of the relationship their first birthday (girls’ hair was not to be cut), lest “they
between heat, destiny and newborns clear in her description of the become mute,” and even then the hair must be collected and
manner in which Nahuatl children are animated. When Nahuatl saved (Hinojosa 1999:186). In nearby Iximche, others argued that
children are born, the gods: cutting the hair of a boy prematurely would diminish “knowledge
and reason” (Hinojosa 1999:186). Thus the head was a potent
[s]imultaneously breathed the tonalli into the child and ignited a symbol in a variety of iconographic and archaeological contexts
fire in its chest in an action analogous to making fire with a drill. (for relevant discussions of skull iconography see also Houtson
This implement consists of an upright wooden piece twirled et al. 2006; Miller 1999; Moser 1973).
rapidly on a flat base …. It produces heat through friction,
Tzompantli skull racks were a common example of this. These
although this seemingly simple instrument requires considerable
skill to make anything but smoke. As a fire maker blows on an
are most well known among the Mexica and in Oaxaca
ignited spark to fan it into a vigorous flame while whirling the (Wilkinson 1997), however they are found in iconography in the
upright, both breath and friction in the chest animate an infant. Maya area at sites like Chichen Itza, and actual skull rows are
[Furst 1995:65] known from the site of Ixlu (Duncan 2012), as well as skull deposits
from Iximche (Whittington 2003), Colha (Massey and Steele 1997)
When the child drops significantly in the womb (which is normally and other sites (see Mendoza 2007 for a recent review). The tzom-
the day of birth), the animation is said to have occurred. This was pantli were frequently juxtaposed with ball courts because they were
significant enough that children are named for that day (Furst both cosmic portals (Mendoza 2007). The ball courts were associ-
1995). Since days and day names have particular meanings, on ated with passage to the underworld, while the tzompantli were
204 Duncan and Hofling

associated with passage to the heavens. The skull row at Ixlu is Table 2. Polysemic associations between the human body and houses
telling because it consisted of adolescent and adult males buried among the Maya.
immediately prior to constructing a floor and a small temple
(Duncan 2012) and appears to be an attempt to ensoul the building b’äk’el ‘(human) body’ naj ‘house’
in a way similar to that found in Tenejapa. As Houston et al. (2006:
jo’ol ‘head’, pol, ‘head’ ujo’ol naj, ‘(peak of) roof’, upol
72) note, the severed heads “contained the … essences of the way, or naj, ‘(peak of) roof’
companion spirits.” However, skulls were not only used in attempts tz’u’ pol, chumuk pol, ‘crown chumuk upol naj, ‘the center of the
to violate enemies. Landa (Tozzer 1941) noted that among the of head’, center of head’ roof peak’
Cocom lineage, the face would be cut off from the deceased rela- ch’ala’at, ‘ribs’ uch’ala’at naj, ‘lit., ribs of house’,
tives’ skulls and the ashes from the postcranium placed inside the front and back roof poles’
skull. The face would then be built up again with bitumen and there- ich, ‘face’, ‘eye’ ich naj, ‘inside of house’
fore preserved. Thus the animating essences associated with the chi’, ‘mouth’ ujol naj, uchi’ naj, ‘the doorway of
skull could be manipulated in a variety of ways. the house’
taan, ‘front of body’ utaan naj, ‘front of house’
Pregnant women and newborn babies were particularly vulnerable
pach, ‘back’ tupach naj, ‘at the back of the
to soul loss and evil winds (Hinojosa 1999:71–75; Kunow 1996:90).
house’, ‘the exterior walls of house’
Winds have beneficial and harmful properties in Mayan languages and tzeel, ‘side’ tutzeel naj, ‘at the front and back
cultures. In its positive sense, ik’ may be glossed as ‘wind’, ‘breath’, sides of house’
‘animacy’ (see Hofling and Tesucún [1997:251] on Itzaj Maya; näk’, ‘belly’ näk’ naj, ‘lower part of inside wall’
Wisdom [1940:317] on Ch’orti’; Hanks [1996:250] on Yukatek) n’ak’ xa’an ‘inside slope of roof’
and is an animating force, entering infants at birth. Tedlock (2005:
214, 320) citing Taube (1994) notes that birthing ropes used by mid-
wives to help the mother with childbirth were hung from house rafters
and represent the passage of a child’s spirit from the sky into the shown in Table 2 and Figure 2. Moreover, new house dedications
child’s body (see also Paul and Paul 1975:709). Jordan (1993:37) share a number of features with the early childhood practices
notes that in Yucatan someone will blow onto the top of the pregnant described above. Information on house ceremony practices in colo-
woman’s head to give her strength. As a negative force, evil winds are nial Yucatan is sketchy, but Cogolludo (1957 [1688]:IV:184) men-
primary causes of disease. Consequently in Yucatan, all doors and tions that new houses could not be occupied until they were blessed
openings in the house are closed or sealed by stuffing them with by a shaman. Landa’s (Tozzer 1941:103–105) description of purify-
rags during birth (Jordan 1993:42; Sargent and Bascope 1996:219). ing the house for baptismal rites by driving out an evil spirit also
Also in Yucatan, people hang certain plants over doorways, to shows many similarities to modern new house ceremonies. The
combat dangers to pregnant women posed by witches (Kunow twentieth-century New House Ceremony at Chan Kom, Yucatan,
1996:69). It is worth noting that this need to seal houses for protection was performed by a shaman to make the house safe for its future
clearly has pre-Columbian roots. Plank (2004:46) notes that lintels occupants, keeping evil winds out (Redfield and Villa Rojas
over doorways at the sites of Chichen Itza and Xkalumkin often 1934:146–147). The shaman hung gourds with food offerings to
include the verb k’al, which means “to bind, fasten, [or] enclose” the house from each corner-post and put food offerings on an
for protection after animation. Additionally, the mother’s pelvis and altar in the center. A live hen, candles, rum, tortillas, and other
head are tied to return them to their original state because of the foods were also offered. Thompson (1930:69) describes a very
need “to close up the bones that opened during childbirth” (Jordan similar New House Ceremony performed by the Mopan Maya of
1993:22). Sargent and Bascope (1996:221) note that among Maya Belize. Candles were lit at each corner post and in the center, and
in Yucatan, after cutting the umbilical cord the midwife “molded food offerings were made for the spirits of the corner-posts and
the baby’s head until she approved of its shape.” Among Tzutujil for the Forest spirit to repay it for the house materials. Vogt
speakers in the Guatemalan highlands children are bathed “with a pro- (1993:52–55) offers an elaborate description of the New House
tective infusion of rue” and fennel eight days after birth (Cosminsky Ceremony of the Tzotzil Maya of Zinacantan. The ceremony was
2001; Paul 1974:284). Similarly the Tzeltal believe that swaddling called hol chuk, literally “binding the head of the roof” (Vogt
newborns for 15 days and avoiding contact with outsiders for 20 1993:52), or ridge pole ceremony and was conducted after the
days limits the potential of soul loss as well as wind and heat- ridge pole is in place at the peak of the roof (Laughlin 1975:157).
related illnesses (Cosminsky 1982:244, 2001:196). Such attempts to Four chickens, one for each corner post, were suspended by a
guard against soul loss and illness among newborns are widespread rope tied to the ridge pole in the center of the house. After the chick-
throughout the Maya region. ens were sacrificed and made into broth, the house builders offered
Considering metaphoric polysemy between the human body and the broth and liquor to the four corners and the head (peak) of the
houses is a final link suggesting that cranial modification is analo- roof. Stross (1998:32–33) explains that sacrificial offerings were
gous to placing the roof on a building. It seals the newly animated made to animate the house and that continued feeding maintained
construction, and likely relates to the desire to maintain the levels animacy. After the completion of the house, a shaman performed
of this soul-stuff for newborns, thereby keeping them from harm. a second rite offering candles (symbolic food) to the Earth Lord
As Stross (1998) and Vogt (1993, 1998) have pointed out for to summon ancestral gods to ensoul the house. The house was
Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya, respectively, the birth and socialization ritually purified and carefully attended for the next three days
of infants have strong parallels with the construction and dedication because it now had an innate soul, just as infants and the sick
of houses. Houses have parts much like human bodies have parts, were attended.
and humans are shaped much like houses are built. The metaphori- Additional possible evidence of the antiquity of beliefs linking
cal use of body part terms for house parts is extensive. Itzaj Maya winds and roof peaks is found in the hieroglyphs. The hieroglyph
terms (Hofling 1997, 2004) indicative of this parallelism are for the number three, also the patron of the month Mak has an
Cranial Modification as Protection and Ensoulment among the Maya 205

Figure 2. Parts of a Maya roof that correspond to words for head (after Wauchope 1938:Figures 10a and 41a).

interesting head variant (T1082) (Figure 3). The head sign has and Puuc regions (Figure 5) (Plank 2004:222; Schele 1998:482). In
several diagnostic features. He has a tau or ik’ sign, usually on his the Codex Mendoza an Aztec lord’s house and administrative center
cheek or at his ear. There is some agreement that the god of the is depicted with a headdress (Evans 2005). Also, like modern house
number three is a wind god (Macri and Looper 2003:146; Taube roofs, corbelled vaults with capstones at their peaks appear to be
1992:58–60; Thompson 1971:132–133). The link between the analogs of heads. Doorway lintels may be considered to be the
number three and wind might be based on the homophony or “door’s roof” (Plank 2004:206). These parallels between specific
near homophony of the words for ‘three’ and ‘steam’ (ox and oox architectural elements and heads do not diminish the analogy
respectively in Itzaj Maya). The portrait of this god has a unique between a house and a body. Rather, they highlight the point that
woven binding around his head which, as Montgomery (2002:60) each of these elements was a potential portal through which animat-
has noted, resembles the glyphic sign for thatch on the roof of a ing essences could pass and in each case care needed to be taken to
house (Figure 4). Thus there seems to be parallel treatment of the ensure that did not happen.
top of the wind god’s head and the top of a thatched roof, both of Recent discussions of temple dedication and fire rituals has bol-
which are bound to prevent harm to a newly formed being. stered this point, strongly suggesting that part of the dedication of
Generalizing meaning between architectural features across temples also involved animation through a fire ritual (Rice 2004
space and time is difficult because a given building may be concep- 246–251; Stuart 1998:373–425). (Although we note that the cat-
tualized and used in multiple ways (McAnany and Plank 2001). egory of “temple” is likely an etic category [Plank 2004].) As part
Additionally, emic categories associated with architecture may be of the ritual dedication "fire entered" or "was drilled" in the struc-
extended to non-architectural fields (Houston 1998; Plank 2004: tures, which Stuart (1998) interprets as "ritual activation", anima-
236–237). That said, the conceptualization of the house as described tion, or ensoulment of the structure, based on much of the same
above may have implications for interpreting Classic Maya architec-
ture and suggests that the idea of soul loss and the need to protect
against it was in fact pre-Columbian. That the relationship
between the human body and architecture can be extended to the
past is well documented. The doors of buildings are often portrayed
as mouths (often of monster’s), especially in the Rio Bec, Chenes,

Figure 4. Maya house glyph (after Montgomery 2002:Figures 1214a; see

also Macri and Looper 2003:253).

Figure 3. Number 3, Ik’ glyph (after Thompson 1971:Figure 24; see also Figure 5. Hochob, Structure 2. Stylized mouths encircled (after Andrews
Macri and Looper 2003:146). 2001:348).
206 Duncan and Hofling

Examples of the maize god and or other deities moving through

this portal are seen at Palenque and Uxmal (Figure 6) (Carrasco
and Hull 2002). In some cases the way (or co-essence) of the
maize god passes through the capstone mimicking a larger creation
story in which the maize god is born and emerges through a crack in
a roof caused by Chaak, the rain god (Carrasco and Hull 2002). The
same phenomenon has been pointed out for the capstones of tombs
(Fitzsimmons 2006), and Gillespie (2002) notes that the tubes above
the two tombs in Palenque have been interpreted as “psychoducts”
for the soul to leave. This kind of function may not be true for all
capstones but minimally those that have references to carapaces
appear to have been conceptualized as a portal that needed to be
sealed. Thus it appears that at least some vault peaks and capstones,
like modern house roof peaks, were loci for the potential passage of
Figure 6. Corbelled vault from Palenque (House K of the Palace) with animating essences or winds into or out of the structure.
capstone showing the maize god passing through it (redrawn from
Carrasco and Hull 2002:29).
ethnographic evidence discussed above. The rulers performing Comparing child-rearing practices among different Maya groups
these fire rituals are associated with the Jaguar God of the supports earlier authors’ assertions that cranial modification was a
Underworld, who is also prominent in censer iconography and part of embodiment and socialization among the Maya. We have
perhaps the patron of fire (Stuart 1998:407–408). argued that modifying the head was necessary because newborns
Capstones at multiple sites, such as Ek Balam and Chichen Itza and infants were at risk for soul loss through their heads.
(Carrasco and Hull 2002), include statements associated with the Polysemic associations between Maya bodies and houses suggest
verb k’al, which means to close or bind and is associated with pro- that both need to be animated and that cranial modification was tan-
tection after animation. Carrasco and Hull (2002) use iconographic, tamount to building a roof on a new building—both help seal up the
epigraphic and archaeological data to argue that the capstone of cor- animating essences and prevent soul loss. This is relevant for
belled vaults was a portal oftentimes associated with a turtle cara- archaeologists because vaulted roofs, capstones, and cranial modifi-
pace. Such iconography is seen at multiple locations at Chichen cation have roots stretching back into the Preclassic period and their
Itza (Plank 2004), as well as in the Madrid Codex (Carrasco and construction and associated rituals may reflect at least some overlap-
Hull 2002), Dresden Codex, and the Borgia Codex (Plank 2004). ping motivations.

En este artículo se analiza la importancia de la modificación craneal en el Este artículo presenta un resumen de las investigaciones en el estudio de
proceso de socialización entre los mayas. Sugerimos que entre los mayas la la modificación craneal. Las corrientes que se analizan son la descriptivo-
modificación craneal es un elemento central en la constitución de los individuos. clasificatoria, los estudios sobre las implicaciones de salud, los efectos
Estas modificaciones están relacionadas no solo con la constitución corporal del morfológicos y las razones sociales. Privilegiamos esta última forma de
individuo sino también con a la protección contra fuerzas sobrenaturales (en estudio y se concentra en las razones simbólicas y sociales sin menospreciar
especial aires malignos). La modificación craneal es parte de la protección nece- los aportes de las otras aproximaciones. El estudio simbólico y social es
saria para garantizar que el individuo mantenga su alma o fuerza vital. apoyado por evidencias históricas, etnográficas, arqueológicas y
Basándonos en documentos coloniales y observaciones etnográficas, sugerimos lingüísticas. A través de estas evidencias se establece la importancia general-
que la cabeza es el lugar donde residen las esencias de animación del individuo. izada de la cabeza en el contexto general de las prácticas de socialización de
Por eso su modificación es necesaria para garantizar la protección del alma. Por diversos grupos mayas. Esta comparación establece que la idea que la cabeza
último, argumentamos que existe una relación metaforico-polisémica entre el de un infante es el lugar por el cual el alma puede escaparse es ampliamente
cuerpo humano y las casas recién construidas. Las casas recién construidas reconocida por diversos grupos mayas. El individuo necesita cerrar el
requieren ser ensalmadas para prevenir la pérdida de su esencia vital. Estos es espacio de su cabeza en una forma específica para evitar la pérdida de su
un proceso que se puede vincular con la modificación craneal a nivel alma. Esto implica una conexión metafórica y polisémica entre entidades
metafórico pues ambos son procesos de modificación destinados a la que deben ser encapsuladas para no perder la fuerza vital. Es por tanto evi-
protección y contención del alma. En este sentido, la modificación craneal dente que la modificación craneal es el reflejo de un concepto básico en la
actúa como la construcción del techo de una casa encapsulando el alma cosmología maya que afecta la construcción de casas así como la
dentro de la casa y el cuerpo y evitando que esta se escape. constitución de individuos.

Juan Rodriguez, Martha Black, and Dr. Kathleen Costello kindly provided very grateful. Dr. Steve Whittington also provided clarification on
input on the Spanish translation of the abstract. Yuki Tanaka points in the article and Dr. Anthony Cavender kindly provided editorial
provided assistance in redrawing figures. Dr. Joel Palka and our reviewers comments and feedback. All remaining errors remain entirely the authors’
provided particularly cogent criticisms and comments for which we are responsibility.
Cranial Modification as Protection and Ensoulment among the Maya 207

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