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Deformed skulls discovered in 1,000-year-old Mexican cemetery

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Archaeologists digging in a 1,000-year-old pre-Hispanic cemetery in Mexico's South Sonora have uncovered a series of skeletons featuring signs of cranial deformation. The practice, which is well documented among Mesoamerican peoples, has never been seen this far north before — a strong indication that their cultural influence was far more prominent than previously assumed.

The ancient burial ground, which is being excavated by Garcia Moreno on behalf of Arizona State University and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), consists of 25 individuals, 13 of which exhibit intentional cranial deformations.

Also called head binding or head flattening, the practice was likely done to signify group affiliation or as a way to demonstrate social status. It may have also been seen as something aesthetically pleasing.


Many cultures have practiced head binding throughout history, even possibly the Neanderthals, and was typically carried out on infants (as their skulls could be easily moulded). To create the effect, wooden boards were applied to the skull with pressure, typically starting at the age of about one month, and then for the next six months.


But as this new discovery has revealed, some cranial deformations did not go so well. Past Horizons explains:

Of the skeletal remains of 25 individuals recovered, 17 are between 5 months and 16 years and 8 are adults. The researcher noted that the number of infants and pre-pubescents identified in the cemetery may be an indicator of poor practice in regards to cranial deformation and death likely was caused by excessive force while squeezing the skull. This she said, is derived from studies conducted on the remains and the results did not show any apparent diseases that could have caused death.


In addition to the discovery of head binding, some individuals exhibited dental mutilation — a cultural practice that's also common to pre-Hispanic groups in southern Sinaloa and northern Nayarit. Like the cranial deformations, archaeologists are seeing this for the first time in Sonora.


The skeletons also wore ornaments such as bangles, nose rings, earrings, and pendants made from shells found in the Gulf of California. One burial contained a turtle shell that was carefully placed over the abdomen.

According to archaeologist Cristina Garcia Moreno, director of the research project, "This unique find shows a mix of traditions from different groups of northern Mexico. The use of ornaments made from sea shells from the Gulf of California had never been found before in Sonoran territory and this discovery extends the limit of influence of Mesoamerican peoples farther north than has been previously recorded."


Read more about this remarkable discovery at Past Horizons.

Images: INAH and Virtual Museum.