Posted by: Johan Normark | October 15, 2010

Olmecoid head shapes and the Maya Maize God

The intentional shaping of infants’ heads was common in the Maya area from at least 1000 BC and onwards. It was once believed that this practice was a sign of elite status but Vera Tiesler has shown that roughly 77% of Formative period skulls and 85% of Classic period skulls, from all kinds of social strata, shows some degree of modification. There are instead some broad regional and temporal preferences for distinct head forms. She believes the practice and knowledge was inherited among midwives and mothers. The heads were formed by the use of cradleboards combined with constricting bands in various combinations to get the desired effect.

Olmec ceramic baby figure

In a recent article in Latin American Antiquity Tiesler focuses on a particular pear like head shape that so far only is known from the Middle and the Late Formative periods (1000 BC – AD 250). These Olmec forms consisted of pseudo-circular tabular erect shapes. The skull form is reminiscent of the Olmec head sculpture and iconography known from the Mexican Gulf coast. However, there are only ten known examples and they are spread throughout the Maya area. They have been found at Pampa el Pajón and Chiapa de Corzo in Chiapas, Altar de Sacrificios and Seibal in Peten, and Dzibilchaltun and Caucel in Yucatan. Seven of them were male and three were female.

 

Tiesler proposes that these “Olmecoid” forms not just were the unintended effects of child-rearing practice or an aesthetic choice, but that the actual outcome of head shaping was imbued with emblematic meanings. The Classic period Maya is nowadays believed to have modified the heads into the form of the corn-shaped vault of the Maize God. Tiesler believes that the earlier Olmec sculptures also depict cranial shaping among the Olmecs and in this case they also resembled the Maize God (there are too few remaining skeletons from the Gulf area to tell how widespread the practice was). The Olmec symbolic elements were most likely incorporated into already existing Maya head shaping practices.

Thus, the head forms could potentially be emblems of supernatural entities such as the Maize God. The slanted, tubular head forms that we find on most Classic period depictions of the Maya Maize God do not appear until the beginning of the Early Classic (after AD 250). During the Late Formative this Maya Maize God is depicted with an erect head shape and a steep forehead that resemble Olmec Maize God portraits, such as on the Maya murals from San Bartolo. Hence, the changing depictions of the Maize God in Maya art mirror changes in artificial head shaping among a broader population. This suggests that the shaping of the head into the form of the important Maize God also created a group identity for both female and male.

Part of the San Bartolo murals

Tiesler, Vera (2010). “”Olmec” head shapes among the Preclassic period Maya and cultural meanings. Latin American Antiquity 21(3):290-311.

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