Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/August 1891/Head-Flattening as Seen Among the Navajo Indians



A LITTLE over a year ago, when in the northwestern part of New Mexico, the opportunity was afforded the writer to make a great many observations upon the Navajo Indians, the tribe found in that section of the country. Those studies, which took into consideration in several instances their simple arts and industries, have been published in various quarters; but a widely different field of research, for which they also afforded the material, especially interested me at the time, and this was the subject of their craniology.

On a number of occasions fine specimens of the skulls of those Indians, of both sexes and all ages, fell into my hands; while the peculiar distortion several of these presented at once commanded my attention. In the main this distortion consisted in either a direct or an oblique posterior flattening of the skull; and that it was a characteristic to be seen in many of the heads of the representatives of that tribe of North American Indians has long been a well-ascertained fact.

For an equal length of time has the cause of this flattening of the skull among the Navajos generally been attributed to a pressure brought to bear over the region in question during the infancy of the individual exhibiting it. This was also my own preconceived opinion, an opinion which had become more or less fixed by all my previous reading upon the subject, but not through personal examination of the proper material itself, under the most favorable circumstances possible.

Among the first if not the first specimen that came into my possession was the skull of an adult male Navajo, and, after a careful study of it, it was presented to the craniological section of the Anatomical Museum of the University of Edinburgh, where it now is. This was early in 1886; and in the April number of that year of the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology of London, the writer published his observations upon that skull, the paper being illustrated by a fine lithographic plate presenting the four principal views of the same.

In the same number of the Journal which I have named above, Prof. Sir William Turner contributed an additional note upon the same skull, wherein he says that it "presented a well-marked parieto-occipital flattening, obviously due to artificial pressure, which had been applied so as to cause the suprasquamous part of the occipital bone and the posterior three fourths of the parietal to slope upward and forward."

"The frontal region did not exhibit any flattening, so that in this individual, and it may be in his tribe of Indians, the pressure applied in infancy was apparently limited to the back of the head. Owing to this artificial distortion, the longitudinal diameter of the head was diminished, and the cephalic index, 94·6, computed from Dr. Shufeldt's measurements of the length and breadth, was therefore higher than it would have been in an undeformed skull. The cranium was hyperbrachycephalic."

This, and much more, was set forth in Dr. Turner's valuable "note" upon my specimen; but it was hard for me to see how a baby could have pressure applied to the back of its skull of sufficient amount to produce the flattening found, unless there was a counter-pressure applied at the opposite aspect of the skull, which naturally would produce there perhaps a similar flattening or some other distortion, and this latter deformity is never seen to exist in the skulls of the Navajos. As I say, at the time I read Dr. Turner's note, I was in a position to examine this question quite thoroughly, as these Indians were living all about me, and I saw the Navajo women daily with their infants strapped in their cradles.

It will be seen in the sequel that my subsequent observations in the premises compelled me to hold a different opinion from the one advanced above by so eminent an authority as is Sir William Turner.

Another skull which soon fell into my hands was a fine specimen from a young Navajo girl of some six or seven years of age, and it showed this peculiar flattening to a very marked degree. By the aid of my camera I am enabled to present herewith two figures of the skull of this individual, showing the flattening from two views.

Upon every occasion where I was permitted to do so, careful examinations were made of the heads of these people, both living PSM V39 D553 Superior view of a navajo child skull.jpgFig. 1.—Direct Superior View of the Skull of a Navajo Indian Child of about Six and a Half Years of Age, and probably a Female. (Considerably reduced.) and dead, as well as the methods of strapping the infant Navajos in their cradles, and indeed all else that might tend to throw light upon the subject.

Of some two or three dozen children of all ages, from the infant upward, that I have thus examined, I have yet to find a case wherein the mother has not taken the special precaution to place a soft and ample pad in the cradle in such a manner as to fully protect the back of the child's head. Moreover, I have yet to see a case, except for a few days or more in the very youngest of babies, where the head is strapped at all. On the other hand, this part of the body is allowed PSM V39 D553 Right lateral aspect of the navajo child skull.jpgFig. 2.—Right Lateral Aspect of the same Skull shown in Fig. 1. all possible freedom, as may be seen in Fig. 3, illustrating the paper. This picture is from a photograph of the Navajo woman "Chuna," who lives near Fort Wingate, New Mexico, and it shows exactly the general method employed by the mothers of this tribe of Indians in strapping their babies in the cradle, and also their mode of carrying the cradle.[1] It will at once be observed that the head of the child is perfectly free, and that it has been supplied by a thick and soft pillow at the back of it, whereas the body and limbs have been strapped up almost to the last degree.

This child, being a "half-breed," has light, thin hair, through which the general form of its skull could be easily examined; but,

PSM V39 D554 Navajo woman carrying her baby.jpg

Fig. 3. Navajo Woman carrying her Baby.

after the most careful measurements, I failed to detect any flattening whatever of the occipital region of the head. In examining the full-blooded infants of different ages of this tribe, I occasionally found one wherein I thought I could satisfactorily determine that the back of its head was unduly flattened, but it was by no means always the case.

Another thing must be remembered, and that is that these Navajo women do not always keep their infants thus strapped up in their cradles, and this fact goes to sustain that whatever pressure is brought to bear against the backs of their heads is not a constant one. We often see little Navajo babies playing about for hours together, and that at a time when they are scarcely able to walk.

Among the older children, as well as I could do so through their thick mats of hair, I have on one or more occasions satisfied myself that the hinder region of their heads was flattened, though it was but rarely the case that one was met with that exhibited this to a degree found in the skull figured in the present paper.

Such examinations as I have been enabled to make thus far very thoroughly convince me that this head-flattening is not due to the mode of strapping that part of the body employed by the Navajo mothers of the present day. In ages or generations gone by the ancestors of those Indians may have resorted to a very different method of fastening the infant's head in its cradle: perhaps it may have been more firmly fixed by thongs, and a pressure brought to bear upon the occiput, and that of a nature to produce the distortion in question; but so far as the writer is aware we have no such record for this tribe. How much heredity may have to do with it, then, we are not fully prepared to answer. And in any event we must bear in mind, when considering this matter, that the distortion, if it may be so termed, does not occur by any means in the skulls of all the representatives of the Navajos; nor is it limited to either sex; nor does it disappear as age advances; nor does the plane of the flattened surface of the occiput always bear the same relation to other planes of the skull, as the flattening may be central, or it may be more or less lateral, and so on; and, finally, it varies greatly in degree.

That skull-distortion, due to various modes of artificial presssure, is to be seen among divers peoples still in existence, as well as in the preserved skulls of former races that inhabited the earth, there can be no question; and it would seem, in the light of what we have attempted to bring out in this paper, that one of the most interesting points to decide with respect to it is whether such a feature can become hereditary.

At all events, the subject is full of interest, and will bear, it appears to me, further and fuller investigation.

  1. The cradle shown in this illustration is now in the collections of the United States National Museum, at Washington, where it was deposited by the writer.