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26 July 2010
Ancient Aboriginal skull suggests head reshaping practice

11,000 years ago a tall and solidly built Aboriginal man lived a hard life. His bones reveal he had arthritis in his jaw, multiple breaks in both forearms and a fractured ankle so severe his shin bones fused together. "Death might have been something to look forward to for him," the palaeoanthropologist Peter Brown said.
     But since the skeleton, known as Nacurrie, was discovered in 1948 near Swan Hill on the Murray River (South Australia) it has been the changes to his skull that have been of most interest to Professor Brown. The shape of his cranium suggests Aborigines practised body modification, manipulating the contour of the skull, he said. Nacurrie appears to be the earliest example of the practice anywhere in the world, he said. "You can only change the shape of the head in a baby because the skull is soft and malleable so it can pass through the birth canal," Professor Brown, who works at the University of New England, said.
     The skeleton of Nacurrie suggests his skull shape was modified by subtle means, probably by massage from his mother's hands. Several other skeletons found in the Murray-Darling area also had modified skulls. "It is clear from the archaeological record that a group of people living on the Murray River used to do this ... between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago." Professor Brown said massaging the skull did not cause brain damage because the brain was a flexible organ. The practice was probably done for aesthetic reasons, but no one knows why it had stopped in Aborigines, he said.
     Cranium manipulation has been common throughout different cultures. By some reports, it was the most popular type of body modification after circumcision, said Professor Brown. In Papua New Guinea some mothers would bind their babies' heads with a tight bandage, which created a cone shape, while in South America babies were strapped to cradleboards, creating a flat-shaped head, he said. "In the Netherlands and Denmark they used to put little caps on babies which used to change the shape of their heads. That was done until fairly recently."

Sources: The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (26 July 2010)

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