Why the Head? Cranial Modification as Protection and Ensoulment Among the Maya

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Recent attempts to study cranial modification have suggested that the practice was a part of embodiment and socialization among the Maya. Comparison of colonial and modern Maya childbirth and socialization practices supports these arguments. We suggest that the next question to be asked is: "Why was the head specifically targeted for modification among the Maya?" This paper argues that one of the motivations behind cranial modification among the Maya was to protect newborns from injury. We present evidence from colonial documents and ethnographic studies on midwifery showing that animating essences resided in the head and that newborns were particularly at risk for soul loss and injury from evil winds. Further we present data on metaphoric polysemy between the human body and houses to argue that newborn humans were much like newly constructed houses in their susceptibility and that both required ritual ensoulment. The construction of the house roof parallels cranial modification. This likely has parallels in Classic Maya times, with some temple dedications and the construction of vaulted roofs with capstones, and suggests that the need to guard against soul loss has pre-Columbian roots.