Wikipedia has quite an extensive piece on cranial deformation, which is a form of body modification practiced throughout history and prehistory in many cultures from all over the world, from the Pacific Islands, to South America to Europe. From a very early age, a baby’s head is bound, often between planks of wood to force the developing bones of the cranium to grow and set in a particular manner. Individuals with deformed skulls may be thought to be more
intelligence intelligent (ironic, eh?), closer to the spirit world and have a higher social status.
Some of the most famous examples of deformed crania are those of the Paracas culture which existed in the Peruvian Andes between 2100 and 2800 years ago:
Some recent research, however, has focused on the practice of cranial deformation in indigenous Australians around 12 000 years ago using remains from Kow Swamp in the state of Victoria. Since their discovery over 40 years ago they have been used to investigate the idea that the first settlers of Australia as long as 60 000 years ago (Roberts et al., 1994) are at least partly descended from Homo erectus in Indonesia.
A lot of arguments in favour of this view have focused on the long and flattened foreheads of the Kow swamp crania, stating that they closely resemble populations of Homo erectus from south-east Asia. The recent study carried out at Texas Tech University, the South Australian Museum and Flinders University in Australia (Durband, 2014) examines a number of lengths and widths to describe the shape of the five most complete Kow Swamp skulls in the most comprehensive analysis to date.
Durband compared measurements taken from the Kow swamp crania with measurements of 100 unmodified modern human skulls and fourteen Melanesian skulls which are known to have been artificially modified. A statistical test called canonical variates analysis (CVA) was used to separate the skulls into groups based on the patterns of the measurements in each skull. Skulls with similar patterns, for example those whose foreheads taper strongly from front to back, are grouped together. CVA grouped all of the modern humans together while a second group was formed which contained all of the deformed Melanesian crania.
Interestingly, three of the Kow Swamp crania are more similar to the modified Melanesian crania than they are to the modern human crania while two appear more similar to unmodified modern human crania, including one Kow Swamp cranium which was previously identified as being artificially modified.
These findings have cast doubt on previous investigations which have attempted to argue for genetic continuity between Indonesian Homo erectus and indigenous Australians, especially since the most heavily investigated skulls are the three which were far more similar to the modified crania than to the unmodified skulls.
But this does not mean that the first indigenous Australians had no dealings with archaic human populations on their way to Australia, just that a lot of care needs to be taken when trying to create evolutionary trees based on the shape of fossils alone.
Any questions or comments are always welcome!
p.s. To read more about cranial modification check out this blog post by the wonderful Katy Meyers and click on some of the links in it too. She really is a treasure trove of cool information!
Durband, A. C. (2014). Brief communication: Artificial cranial modification in Kow Swamp and Cohuna. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 00, 1–6. doi:10.1002/ajpa.22563.
Marcin Tlustochowicz -“ParacasSkullsIcaMuseum”. Elongated Skulls Characteristic of the Paracas Culture. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ParacasSkullsIcaMuseum.jpg#mediaviewer/File:ParacasSkullsIcaMuseum.jpg.
Roberts, R. G., Jones, R., Spooner, N. A., Head, M. J., Murray, A. S., & Smith, M. A. (1994). The human colonisation of Australia: optical dates of 53,000 and 60,000 years bracket human arrival at Deaf Adder Gorge, Northern Territory. Quaternary Science Reviews, 13(5-7), 575–583. doi:10.1016/0277-3791(94)90080-9.