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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

A Note About Skulls



Apologies to regular readers this week, I am under a 'press deadline' for the writing of an anthropological project whose text I must e-mail to the USA next week. So unfortunately there is not enough time this week, nor possibly next week to continue filling you in on the ins and outs of Europe's attempts to try and prohibit the medicinal use of extracts from the root of the South Pacific kava plant (piper methysticum). This will have to wait until until I have finished the anthropological text on ... overmodelled skulls (!).

The above-mentioned project is to be published as the first scientific worldwide and historical study of overmodelled skulls. It will not, of course, be a best-seller, but then most academic texts are not supposed to be nor are meant to be (and real anthropologists don't really 'work' for money anyway as they are so impassioned with interest and fascination for the vast panoply of human behavioural variation that they don't really class their 'work' as work, nor do it with the main aim of financial benefit - which is why many institutions take advantage of them). It is a bit like 'missionary work' but sometimes on the other side of that cultural fence. The more we can gain insights into the immense varieties of human social and cultural behaviour throughout history and around the world today, the more we may be able to understand where we may come from and where we may be headed. With the way so many things seem to be going in the world today, if we are not careful, we may unfortunately end up where we seem to be headed - with much of the 'developed world's' population forced to work really to pay off debts and bank loans, many big multi-national companies raking in money as if there were no tomorrow (Enron, etc, excepted! - but do not be fooled, Enron's 'mistakes' were not that unusual, 'creative accounting' is a rather well-known and widespread practice in our modern world ) and by smart 'financial management' minimizing their taxes. The 'Developing World' (‘developing to what?') seemingly mired in a vicious cycle of poverty and debt. The really lucky ones, in a way, are those very isolated societies - and 'tribes' - who are still so isolated that, if our 'modern world' disappeared, they would not notice it's passing. There are, luckily, still some parts of the world like that.

A note about 'overmodelled skulls'. Throughout human history we have used human skulls in many ways. One rather unusual (maybe to us, but not to certain other cultures) skull technique consists of remodelling the features of the deceased person onto his or her skull, sometimes in clay, sometimes in other materials. Possibly the oldest (so far found) overmodelled skulls are those found archaeologically in early historical levels in what is now Jericho - human skulls overmodelled with plaster features from eight thousand years ago. Many of these Jericho skulls had been 'deformed', i.e. shaped artificially by cranial manipulation when the individual was very young and the bones were still soft. In many areas of the world - but not all - skull overmodelling took place within cultures where cranial manipulation was an accepted and admired cultural trait. Overmodelled skulls are found historically in many areas of the world - the early Middle East, certain examples from Ancient Egypt, parts of early Peru, early Eastern Europe and certain early Southeast Asian cultures, to name but a few. For most cultures this was obviously a religious practice and certain Catholic societies in Western Europe treated human skulls in such a way well into the early 19th century (Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland were particularly well known for rather bizarre treatment of certain human skulls). The practice of skull overmodellage survived until very recently in certain areas of Papua New Guinea (especially in parts of the Sepik River area) and in certain very isolated areas, still does. But practically the last area of the world where skull deformation (I prefer to call it 'beautification' - and don't forget, such 'beautification' was widespread in Ancient Egypt, Nefertiti possibly being the best known example to us) and skull overmodellage still persists, or is well within recent living memory, is on the southern part of the island of Malakula in Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific. I have been working with these societies for nearly 30 years, so the practice for me seems perfectly natural. It is for this reason that I have been told that my section of this forthcoming academic text is the critical one. However, there may be certain traditional sacred aspects that my friends on the island of Malakula wish to retain secret, and so I will not write about those. I must respect the laws of their cultures and there exists certain information that is 'copyrighted', so that only particular individuals, or clans, within their society have the rights over it. 'Copyright' is not a Euro-American invention; forms of it have been around in certain parts of the world for longer than some of our own countries have existed.

A small note about 'skull elongation'/deformation/beautification. Do not make the mistake that 'only tribes' did or do that. The practice was, for example, actually quite widespread in certain peasant areas of France right up until the 19th century and there were quite a few French peasants with artificially modified skulls still living at the end of the 19th century and some were still alive into the early years of the 20th century. A certain French medical photographer amassed quite a collection of photographic portraits of such living peasants between 1875 - 1912. Some of these photographs were displayed in the Australian Museum's 'Body Art' exhibition in Sydney two years ago, specifically to make the public aware that such practices are not just confined to the 'isolated' areas of the world, but that forms of them are also often part and parcel of 'our' own cultural heritage. I had notified the exhibition organizers of the existence of these photos and my now wife (she wasn't then) - who was working on the exhibition preparation - made sure they were included in the displays.

Kirk W Huffman