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“Olmec” Head Shapes among the Preclassic Period Maya and Cultural Meanings

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Vera Tiesler*
Affiliation:
Facultad de Ciencias Antropológicas, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, Facultad de Ciencias Antropológicas, km 1.00 carretera Mérida-Tizimin, Merida C.P. 97305, Yucatán, Mexico, Tel. (52)-9999-30-00-90, ext. 2005. (vtiesler@yahoo.com)

Abstract

This paper analyzes the biographical and related archaeological information of 10 artificially shaped skulls from the broader Maya area, which bear resemblance to the high and narrow head morphology depicted in Olmec art. The skeletal evidence of this head form, which was accomplished by combining compression cradleboards with constricting horizontal wraps (tabular erect type in its pseudo-circular variety), is rare and predates A.D. 250 in all cases. Here I compare the cranial vaults shaped in this fashion with that of 49 other Preclassic period Maya indivisuals from different parts of the Maya world. The discussion explores the possible evolving social and religious roles of this emblematic body modification. I argue that Olmecoid head modification was a syncretic cultural adoption, since it was just one of many expressions of a deeply embedded Preclassic tradition, still practiced centuries after the demise of Olman’s societies themselves. The visible effect of the artificial pear-shaped heads most likely reflected gradual shifting ideological schemes, probably emulating early versions of the Maya Maize God, given the resemblance to Preclassic period renderings of this supernatural force.

Resumen

Resumen

Este artículo analiza la información biográfica y contextual de 10 cráneos mayas culturalmente modificados, cuya forma artificial se asemeja a la de las cabezas altas y angostas representadas en el arte olmeca. La evidencia esquelética de esta forma cefálica, producida mediante el empleo conjunto de cunas deformatorias y bandas constrictoras (tipo tabular erecto en su modalidad pseudo-circular), es escasa hasta la fecha y en todos los casos data de antes de 250 d.C. Aquí comparo las bóvedas modificadas del modo olmeca con la forma de otros 49 cráneos preclásicos, procedentes de diferentes regiones dentro del área maya. La discusión explora los posibles significados sociales y religiosos de esta práctica en el ámbito cultural maya del Preclásico. Se argumenta que el modelado cefálico olmecoide constituía solo una entre muchas expresiones de una tradición cotidiana ya muy arraigada. Propongo que también la permanencia de modelados del modo olmeca en diferentes partes del territorio maya hasta tiempo después del ocaso de Olman, apunta hacia una adopción sincrética de la práctica. Su efecto visual debería haber seguido esquemas ideológicos en transición, probablemente emulando versiones tempranas del dios maya del Maíz, para después convertirse en las cabezas alargadas y reclinadas del Clásico que más tarde personificarían a esta fuerza sobrenatural en los territorios al este del Soconusco.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 2010

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