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The Precolonial Visayan Practice of Skull Deformation

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his many interests and his favorite topic.

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When I speak of the precolonial Philippines, I always start with rhetorics about pseudohistory. I mean, I always remind my peers that we should stop believing that Maharlika Kingdom legend. Everything about this so-called precolonial kingdom was the product of a hoax, concocted by a professional informal settler for financial gains. Historians already debunked this romanticized fantasy about a long-lost sprawling kingdom, though letting go of this myth is a hard pill to swallow for some Filipinos. Understandably, Filipinos today longed for the memories of the precolonial past. Cultures and practices, untouched by colonization could add a new dimension to our identity, though believing on false history can’t change anything, or make things worse.

But as we learn more about our precolonial past, we realized that the truth is even more colorful than any pseudohistory floating around the net.

The precolonial past might not be that romanticized lost civilization, as after all, it was just a collection of scattered kingdoms. But these scattered kingdoms hold fascinating cultures and traditions waiting to be unearthed. And one of which is a lost practice of the ancient Visayans involving body modifications.

Skull Flattening Across the World

Artificially shaped skull of a tribe member in Congo.

Artificially shaped skull of a tribe member in Congo.

In ancient Visayas, people would reshape the head of an infant to make it more aesthetically desirable. And not just in Visayas, as the practice could be found in other civilizations around the world. In fact, Artificial Cranial Deformation (ACD) predates written history, and amazingly, these cultures had no contacts among each other, and separated by geography, and timelines. The practice could be found in other parts of Asia, and even the Americas. Famous examples include the Mayans, the Incas and other American natives.

The earliest mention came from Hippocrates, when he recorded how an ancient tribe of Africans, or Indians known as Macrocephali shape the skull of their children. The practice dates back to 400 B.C. And head flattening still occurs today in some areas, like Vanuatu, and in Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact the Mangbetu of Congo were known to the Europeans due to their distinct head shape.

One might wonder, why people bothered deforming a perfectly round skull into an elongated shape. Again, the motivation varies according to the society that practiced it. Group affiliation was one reason, as well as status symbol, spirituality, or even aesthetics. The methods of skull deformation also varied among civilizations. Head shape modification started as soon as the infant was born, with its skull still soft and in the process of hardening. Nooksack Indians flattened the skulls of their children by strapping their heads to a cradleboard. In the French region of Toulouse, the head of the infant was wrapped tight and padded, hence reshaping the skull.

In case one might wonder, the elongation of the skull has no effect to the brain function, and it never induce any forms of brain damage either. It also never induced skull damage, as the deformation was done during infancy, when the bones were still soft. And going back to the ancient Visayans, they also have their own reasons and methods of shaping the head of the people.

The Buried Evidence

Plaza Independencia Cebu.

Plaza Independencia Cebu.

One of the most significant sites in Cebu City is the Plaza Independencia Cebu. One could find it near the Magellan’s Cross, right beside Fort San Pedro. Throughout history, it existed in many names, a reflection of its ever-changing role. Once it was called Plaza de Armas in the early 1600, when it served as military training grounds. Later, it was known as Plaza Mayor, when it was expanded to reach the Cebu Cathedral. When the Americans took over, its name changed to Plaza Libertad, and eventually it was rechristened as Plaza Independencia when all colonizers left the country. But during a construction of a tunnel in 2006, pre-hispanic human bones and other artefacts were uncovered, indicating an area of Sugbu settlement.

Interestingly, artefacts include porcelain and ceramic wares dating from the Chinese Song (960 to 1279), Yuan (1279 to 1368) and Ming (1368 to 1644) dynasties. At the same time, the skulls discovered in the site displayed odd features. Some have normal arched forehead, but flat behind, while some skulls were flattened both in the front and back. All were short and broad. This is an indication of pressure applied to flat areas.

Visayan Skull Flattening

The Ancient Visayans, as portrayed in the Boxer Codex.

The Ancient Visayans, as portrayed in the Boxer Codex.

During the pre-hispanic era, a person could be considered attractive if one possessed the following features: broad faces, receding forehead, and flat noses. Hence, infant’s skulls were manipulated into desired shapes through compressions, as what was described by Father Diego Bobadilla on 1640. He mentioned:

“…heads of their children between two flat boards upon birth, and they pressed [the boards] so that [the skull] would extend… and flatten the forehead, thinking that this was a trait of beauty.”

And the practice was not limited to social elites, but in some parts of the Philippines, nobilities displayed the artificially flattened skull features. Indicating that the practice was not limited to the pre-hispanic Visayans, but also in other parts of the country (which will be discussed later).

Method

Unlike other civilizations, Visayans used a comb-like implement known as tangad, fastened by bandages on the head of the infant. Upon aging, adults with desirable head features were called tinangad, but those with a flattened back of the head were referred to as puyak.

On the other hand, people with unmodified skulls were called ondo, meaning stuffed. And as what’s mentioned earlier, skull flattening was also practiced in other parts of the Philippines, such as areas in Southern Luzon like Bicol. Unlike the Visayans, who flattened the skulls with tangad, Bicolanos use plates called sipit, or the padded saop to mold the skull of the infant.

Overall

It was the non-Muslim kingdoms of the precolonial Philippines that molded the head of their people into desired shapes. But aside from appearing as bizarre, or painful to modern standards, skull flattening by our ancestors gave us insights on some of their standards, particularly on human aesthetics. The practice died soon after the arrival of the Spanish, as our people pursued a different form of beauty standards. What was worth noting is how some of the frowned-upon facial features today, like flat noses was actually pretty back then. My friend even joked that body modifications to comply to a beauty perception sounded like modern day plastic surgery, the fact that I agree and disagree. Because head molding by the Visayans is the pursuant of beauty unique to our own precolonial standards.

References:

  1. Fitz Simmons, Ellen; Jack H. Prost & Sharon Peniston (1998) "Infant Head Molding, A Cultural Practice," Arch. Fam. Med., 7 (January/February).
  2. Barras, Colin (14 October 2014). "Why early humans reshaped their children's skulls," BBC.
  3. History of Cebu Plaza Independencia (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cebucitytour.com/cebu-destinations/plaza-independencia-cebu/.
  4. DBCantillas (21 March 2020). "Artificial Cranial Modification ," Prehispanic Cebu.

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