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Melanau signs of beauty: artificially modified skulls from Borneo.

Artificially modified skulls are regarded today as valuable cultural relics, playing an important role in anthropological, ethnological and medicinal research. Based on features of recently identified intentionally modified skulls from Borneo, the author presents; (i) a brief review of cranial modification techniques; (ii) the instrument formerly used by the Melanau to achieve an appreciated shape of the head; and (iii) the resulting bone deformations that are visible on intentionally modified skulls from Borneo.

1 Introduction

The term "intentional head shaping," previously defined as "artificial cranial deformation," subsumes a variety of methods that were applied to purposefully modify the morphology of the cranial vault and thereby the natural shape of the head. For example, Trinkaus (1982:198-9), while evaluating Neanderthals excavated from the upper Mousterian levels of the Shanidar Cave north of Baghdad, Iraq, traced the history of this cultural practice back to 45,000 BP. However, this hypothesis has since been called into question, and Miklejohn et al. (1992:93-5) suggest the earliest examples of intentional head shaping to be Proto-Neolithic/Neolithic Homo sapiens (10,000 to 6,000 BC) from this same site, as well as three more sites in Iran and Syria. Therefore, Southwest Asia may be considered the first center of artificially modified skulls (Kiszely 1978:6). Also in Mesoamerica intentional head shaping has been practiced for almost 10,000 years (Tiesler 2014:163).

A deliberate modification of the natural cranial shape "constitutes one of the most ubiquitous cultural practices that has been documented in all continents" (Tiesler 2014:1), including Australia (Brown 1981: 166; Dingwall 1931: 238-9; Kiszely 1978: 1; Kohler 1901: 5-24; White 1996: 397). Tiesler (2014:1) notes that "its application probably attained its greatest incidence in the Americas, particularly in the Andes and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica." In Insular Southeast Asia and Oceania, intentional head shaping can be traced from Malaya through Sumatra and Nias, Java, Bali, Borneo, Sulawesi, the Moluccas and the Philippines, to Melanesia and Polynesia (Blackwood and Danby 1955:173; Canete 2000:513; Dingwall 1931:122-34; Howells 1978:199; Kohler 1901:6-10; Maceda 1973:58; Martin and Sailer 1959:1291-3; Meyer 1881a:5-26; 1881b:133-5; 1885:85-7; Riedel 1875:11). However, in Micronesia this custom was apparently rare (Dingwall 1931:147), and only a few skulls with features of artificial head shaping were reported from the Caroline and Gilbert Islands (Meyer 1881a:17; Kohler 1901:10). Head shaping is also reported from the Nicobar Islands, though it was almost completely unknown among the Andaman Islanders (Dingwall 1931:94).

A plethora of motives appear to have inspired different cultural groups to shape the heads of their children. These include: tribal distinctions; physical marks of bravery and gallantry by the aristocracy; courage and high military rank; making warriors look taller so as to intimidate their foes; physical marks of dominance over the lowest strata of society; preparation for children to carry heavier burdens later in life; making children more obedient; fostering productivity; making one's appearance more formidable; and maintaining or improving health (Hill-Tout 1907:40; Tiesler 2014:99-127; Tubbs et al. 2006:372).

In the Sunda Islands, including Sulawesi, Melanesia and Polynesia motives that inspired people to modify the head shape of their children included social distinctions associated with nobility and the upper class (North Sulawesi), and to foster brave warriors who inspire terror in their enemies (Central Sulawesi, Tahiti). Most often, however, head shape was regarded as a sign of beauty and parents wanted their children to comply with the society's standards of fashion (Borneo, Sumatra, Nias, North and Central Sulawesi, Kei Islands, New Britain, Duke of York Island, Torres Strait Islands, Loyalty Islands, Friendly Islands, Hawaii, Samoa, New Caledonia) (Blackwood and Danby 1955:173; Crocker 1886:424-5; Dingwall 1931:122-50; Flower 1890:52-4; Furness 1902:159; Hewitt and Lawrence 1911:69; Gleichauf 1979:132; Hoevell 1892:192; Hose and McDougall 1912: I:50; Meyer 1881a:20, 27; 1881b:133-5; 1882:163; Riedel 1871:110-1; 1874:215).

Referring to the large Pacific culture area, Dingwall (1931:150) observed that, from west to east, the custom of head shaping became less definite and the applied methods more inefficient. This led him to the hypothesis that intentional head shaping was probably introduced from centers lying to the west of this area and spread from there to the east.

Intentional modifications of the head shape result from pressure applied to different regions of the skull by various methods. These were primarily carried out for some time during the first three years of life, during which the bones of the juvenile skull are still malleable. In these early years artificial pressure on certain cranial bones causes neurological, connective and bone tissue to grow toward uncompressed skull areas, thereby resulting in distinct changes of the cranial or craniofacial shape (Tiesler 2014:34). Imbelloni and Rudiger (1930:803-5), Aichel (1932:16-7), and later Imbelloni (1934:176, footnote 2) demonstrated the close relationship between the application of specific apparatuses and resulting modulation of the head shape. Dingwall (1931:12-5) defined the main techniques that result in intentional changes of the cranial shape:
(i) moulding the baby's head with the hands,

(ii) the application of boards, bandages, headdresses, pads or stones
to the infant's head, and

(iii) the cradle board on which the infant's head is bound when
deliberately used for this purpose (see also Tiesler 2014:81-3).

Skulls that have been artificially modified by a variety of techniques are portrayed, for example, in Aichel (1932:Plates II-X), Blackwood and Danby (1955:Plates II-IV), Dingwall (1931), Imbelloni and Rudiger (1931:Plates IV-XII), Kiszely (1978:Fig. 1-24, Fig. 38-41), and Tiesler (2014).

Bandages or strips of bark tightly wrapped around the baby's head exerted equal pressure on the whole neurocranium and led therefore to circular erect heads. These are characterized by an increased cranial length and decreased breadth and became known as "long heads." In Melanesia such modifications are reported, for example from the New Hebrides and the Arawe of New Britain (Blackwood and Danby 1955:173; Dingwall 1931:135-46). The Arawe admired "long heads" in both males and females and considered them attractive to the opposite sex (Blackwood and Danby 1955 173).

In contrast to these circular erect head shapings pressure exerted by boards pads or stones that were attached with straps bound around the child's head modified the forehead or the back of the head, or both regions; the latter being defined as frontooccipital (= antero-posterior) compression. It describes a flattening of both the forehead and occiput (Aichel 1932:17-28; Dingwall 1931:6; Imbelloni and Rudiger 1930 Fig. 1-4; Lorentz 2009:78-80), resulting in a limited growth between the frontal and occipital bone. This compression only allowed for lateral compensatory growth that led to a broadening of the head (White 1996:403). Thereby, this cranial modification resulted in short, but wide, cranial vaults compared to unmodified skulls (Aichel 1932:24; Cheverud 1992.340; Imbelloni and Rudiger 1930:806; Anton 1989:265) (Fig. 1). Fronto-occipital compression also led to an increase of curvature in the parietal bones (Larnach 1974:215) which additionally contributed to the flattened backside of the head (Fig. 2).


Fronto-occipital compression resulted in a short but wide cranium. The length:breadth-indices (a: 100; b: 98; c and d: 89) are far beyond that of unmodified skulls from Borneo (for example, e: 83). However, these diverging values also demonstrate that fronto-occipital compressions led to significantly different skull shapes, depending on the applied force and device.

Fig. 1a: Photo taken by Claudius Kamps and courtesy of Ethnological Museum, Berlin. Fig. 1b, c, d: Photos taken by and courtesy of Marta Mirazon Lahr, Duckworth Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Fig. 1e: Photo taken by the author and courtesy of Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta, Natural History Museum, Vienna.


Fig. 2a, d, e: Photos taken by and courtesy of Marta Mirazon Lahr, Duckworth Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Fig. 2c: Photo taken by Claudius Kamps and courtesy of Ethnological Museum, Berlin. Fig. 2f: Photo taken by the author and courtesy of Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta, Natural History Museum, Vienna.

Other features of fronto-occipital head shaping are an increased suture complexity (interdigitation), especially of the lambdoid suture on the back of the skull, and a higher prevalence of posteriorly placed wormian bones within this suture (Gerszten 1993:94; Gottlieb 1978:213-4; O'Loughlin 2004:152; Tiesler 2014:44-5; but see also El-Najjar and Dawson 1977:158-9). Both may be an indication of stress upon the developing cranium resulting from external pressure, or from tensile force above this suture caused by the head shaping device (Anton et al. 1992:321; O'Loughlin 2004:152; White 1996:406f). This may be induced, for instance, by the band which runs around the head, and keeps the head shaping device on the forehead in place (Fig. 3, 4).


Fig, 3a: Photo taken by Claudius Kamps and courtesy of Ethnological Museum, Berlin. Fig. 3b, c: Photos taken by and courtesy of Marta Mirazon Lahr, Duckworth Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Fig. 3d: Photo taken by the author and courtesy of Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta, Natural History Museum, Vienna.

Although in many of the above-mentioned societies the methods employed to modify the natural head shape were comparable with that applied in Borneo, the resulting morphological effects of fronto-occipital flattening differ, depending on the particular device (Cheverud et al. 1992:343): (i) its individual application, (ii) the duration of the shaping procedure, and (iii) the amount of pressure on the cranial bones.

Head shaping devices used to achieve "long heads," broad heads, or otherwise modified head shapes are figured, for instance, in Blackwood and Danby (1955:Plate I), Dingwall (1931), Kiszely (1978:Fig. 35), Kuntner (1971:34), and Imbelloni (1934:175-7, footnote 3, Fig. 7-12).

Within the area of Insular Southeast Asia only two main methods to shape heads are distinguishable:
(i) compression of the child's head with boards either attached to the
cradle, or as part(s) of a device that was attached to the baby's
forehead and/or occiput (Fig. 4);

(ii) moulding the head by pressing or kneading.

As the customs were so similar to those from outside of this region and the methods were so uniform Dingwall (1931:133f) assumed that head shaping had spread from one island group to the other and was not developed independently.

2 Intentional skull modification in Borneo

2.1 Who performed head shaping?

In Borneo the practice of intentional head shaping by fronto-occipital compression is best documented for the Melanau, who refer to themselves as "a likou" (= inhabitants of a river or a section of it) followed by the name of the river along which they live (Morris 1989:181). Melanau inhabit the central northwest coast of Borneo between the mouths of the Rejang and the Tutong rivers (Appleton 2006:61, Map 2; Morris 1981a:27) extending inland for about 20 miles. Today's Melanau may best be characterized as the Malayized representatives of a West-Borneo culture stratum that was historically allied to inland groups, like the Kajaman on the upper Rejang river (LeBar 1972:173). (1) Morris (1981a:27) points towards "cultural, linguistic and social links with the Kajang groups living in the middle Rejang and Balui river areas... who claim close historical connections with the coastal Melanau." However, according to Appleton (2006:70) "No one can say for sure where the Melanau came from to settle in this region, or when, though speculation has linked the Melanau to cultural remains found in the Niah caves... dating back to 40,000 years ago." Whether there is only one (Austronesian) Melanau language or a number of closely related languages is an unresolved question as the speech of the different Melanau, Kajang or Klemantan groups has been classified in several ways. However, they are all more closely related to one another than to the Kayan or Kenyan languages (Morris 1989:184; Ozea 1989:247-50).

Morris (198lb: 10) who lived for two years in the Melanau village of Medong on the Oya river, describes the surrounding landscape as "a rather specialized environment on the banks of slow, meandring rivers that... flow into the South China Sea." The settlements, for instance on the Oya and neighboring rivers, were frequently built below sea-level and within the tidal zone that often reaches far upstream and floods parts of the country. The area is a swampy plain, based on rather barren, peaty soil that hardly allows the cultivation of hill rice by shifting cultivation, the characteristic farming of ethnic groups in the inland districts (Morris 1981a:27). In striking contrast, the agriculture of coastal Melanau was/is based on sedentary farming by cultivation of sago palms, fishing and seafaring.

Before the sago producing territory between the Rejang and Baram rivers was ceded to Rajah James Brooke in 1861, each Melanau village, consisting of one to three longhouses, was an independent political unit with its own customary law (Morris 1991:82 in Appleton 2011:186) and distinct linguistic and cultural differences (Morris 1991:2). The political control of a village laid in the hands of a small group of aristocrats, said to be descended from the village founders, and the society was rigidly stratified (Morris 1981b: 11).(2) Status levels were distinguished in terms of dowry and in different rites of passage related to birth, marriage, and death (King 1985:129). Social hierarchy was also reflected by the location of the individual apartments within the longhouse (Abdul Rahman 1989: 206-7; Morris 1991:76-8): The aristocrats (about 10% of the village population) occupied the central appartments, middle rankers of (two) different degrees (80%) lived on either side of the aristocrats, and slaves (10%) had their apartments at the longhouse's periphery (Morris 1981b: 11).

The original roots of Melanau head shaping remain unclear. Various authors, among them, Crocker, Furness, Hewitt and Lawrence, and Hose (see above), linked head shaping only with the demands of beauty. However, being seafarers Melanau had contacts with cultural groups outside of Borneo (A. Appleton, personal communication) --and some of these foreign groups practiced artificial head shaping for another reason: social distinction (see above). Basically, the strictly stratified society of the Melanau might have been receptive for such an individual distinction towards persons of other, most probably lower, ranks. If the aspect of beauty was originally linked with the aim of social hierarchy (the higher the social position the more important the beauty of the individual) or became more and more important in the course of time until it remained as sole reason for head shaping is currently left to speculation.

The Melanau practiced head shaping until the late 1950s, although by then only in rare cases (Aikmen 1959:85-6). (3) In a letter to Adolf Meyer, dated August 1880, (4) Alfred Everett (5) wrote about a similar practice among the Kanowit (6) from the Rejang river (Meyer 1881a:27; Meyer 1881b: 132-3). However, this information was not confirmed by other investigators.

2.2 The Melanau head shaping instrument

Fronto-occipital flattening of the Melanau children's heads (7) was achieved by using an ingenious, unique instrument that was named differently according to its geographic origin. The Bintulu river Melanau called it tadal (this term will be used in the text), whereas Muka river Melanau named it ja(h) and those from the Oya river api (Aikman 1959:86; Hewitt and Lawrence 1911:69; Hose, cited in Roth 1896:II:80). This different nomenclature points towards the linguistic differences of the individual Melanau communities, living quite isolated from each other (Morris 1991:2).

The tadal consisted of a board of hard wood, about 24 cm long and 9 cm wide (Kurui and Kaboy 1998:82), with a soft pad in its center. This pad was fastened to the child's forehead with strings and two straps of fabric, a horizontal strap and an overhead retaining-strap (Fig. 4a). The strings could be tightened by twisting a perforated coin in the center of the board (Fig. 4b). Thereby the pressure on the child's head was incrementally increased. This resulted in a flattening of the forehead (see Fig. 2, 4c) and occiput (see Fig. 3), and in a fronto-occipital compression--both leading to the anticipated broadening of the head (see Fig. la, b). A tightly fixed overhead retaining-strap could additionally flatten the skullcap (see Fig. 2a, b, 3c, 4b) and cause a depression of the posterior sagittal suture leading to a slightly bi-lobed appearance of the occiput (see Fig. 1b, 3c).

Flakes of soot scraped off from the cooking pot were sewn up with cloth into tiny packets and attached to this apparatus. (8) Like a large blue bead, that was fastened to the strap running over the crown of the child's head, they served as charms. Once used, this instrument was kept in the family for generations. However, a "lucky" device, that shaped heads well, was highly esteemed by those who borrowed it for applying it on their own child's head (Hewitt and Lawrence 1911:70).

Interestingly, a tadal resembles head shaping devices like those shown, for example, in a Maya figurine from El Salvador (Cavatrunci et al., cited in Tiesler 2014:81). A similar instrument was also used by Peruvian shipibo-concibo (Ukayali) Indians (Aichel 1932:28; Imbelloni 1934:175-7, footnote 3, Fig. 9).



2.3 Tadal-induced head shapes

The foreheads that were modified with a tadal were inclined, flattened, and sometimes even depressed (concave) (Fig. 2, 4c). As a result the faces became flat, wide, and "moon-like," which was the preferred shape (Hose, cited in Roth 1896:II: 80; Hose and McDougall 1912:I:50; Morris 1953:122). The flattening corresponded to a shortening of the facial depth, that resulted from the fronto-occipital compression (Anton 1989:265; Cheverud et al. 1992:341; Tiesler 2014:47). According to the Melanau concept of beauty, a forehead thus modeled imparted to the face a very beautiful and mild expression (Furness 1902:159). According to Tommy Black (see footnote 7) "a flat forehead also meant the girls would find that many wedding head gears would fit them." Hewitt and Lawrence (1911:70) described additional consequences of the treatment: "Head pressed Milanows usually have a characteristic squint in both eyes and occasionally the base of the nose is depressed." Ann Appleton from her more recent observations suspects that this "squint" might also have a genetic background (personal communication).

Surprisingly, many ancient cultures did not distinguish boys and girls by their head shape (Kohn et al. 1993:150; Pritchard 2006:58,62; Tiesler 2014:26). However, if the Melanau beauty concept encompassed both sexes or was limited to females cannot be unequivocally answered as different authors present divergent information on this:
(i) At one time all children had their heads deformed (Hewitt and
Lawrence 1911:69; Morris 1953:122).

(ii) Head modeling was exclusively confined to female children (Aikman
1959:85f; Amir 1989: 222; Beccari 1986:258; de Crespigny, cited in
Meyer 1881a:27; (9) Furness 1902:158; Gleichauf 1979:132; Hose, cited
in Roth 1896:II:80). However, according to de Crespigny (cited in Meyer
1882:163) only about 50 percent of the Melanau girls' heads were
intentionally modified.

(iii) Not only the heads of female children but occasionally also boys'
heads were modified (Crocker 1886:424-5; Hose and McDougall 1912:I:48;
Hose 1926:86). Portraits of two adult Melanau males with distinctly
depressed foreheads at least support this statement (Hewitt and
Lawrence 1911).

As each Melanau community was characterized by its own cultural and social characteristics (Morris 1989:185) these findings may, however, also reflect geographic differences in the aspects of cranial vault modification itself.

2.4 The head shaping process

Three factors determined the severity of the skull modification, ranging from nearly invisible (Fig. 2e) to extreme (Fig. 2a): (i) the duration of compression, (ii) the applied pressure, and (iii) the customization of the tadal to the child's head. As post-compression compensatory growth of the skull bones tends to neutralize any artificial change to their natural shape, the degree of redress depended on the age in which head shaping was finalized--with less anatomical correction to a natural skull shape at more advanced ages (Tiesler 2014:48-50,71).

Melanau mothers started intentional head shaping one or two weeks after birth, and, according to reports from various authors, the desired effect was generally achieved after three to four months (Hewitt and Lawrence 1911:69; Hose, cited in Roth 1896:II:80), or after "several months" (Furness 1902:158), or before the child was twelve months old (Crocker 1886:425). In his book Natural Man (1926:86) Charles Hose reported that "it would seem that the operation carried on for about fifteen minutes on from ten to twenty successive days is enough to bring about the desired result" (i.e. the moon-like face). (10) If these differing observations reflect regional distinctions or simply the informants' opinion cannot be determined with certainty. However, as figures 1, 2, and 3c demonstrate, the skulls show anything from slight to severe modifications. Such differences in individual shapes were also reported from other cultural groups (Kohn et al. 1993:150).

Hewitt and Lawrence (1911:69) report a reliable Melanau head shaping concept: A tadal was only applied "during the baby's sleeping time during the day, commencing from about 9 a.m. and resuming again at about 2 p.m." Before the instrument was used, the child was positioned between the legs of the mother and the tadal was fitted over its head with the strings fairly loose. When the child fell asleep the mother gradually added more pressure to the tadal by twisting the perforated coin--thereby shortening the strings--"at intervals of about ten minutes, until the maximum pressure, consistent with her personal judgement of safety, was attained." When the child woke up the tadal was removed. Crocker (1886:425) also highlighted the tender solicitude of the mother who eased and tightened the pressure of the board "twenty times in an hour" whenever the child, lying on its back, showed signs of suffering.

Although intentional head shaping resulted in lifelong changes to an individual's appearance no specific ceremonies in relation to the application of a tadal have been documented by Hewitt and Lawrence (1911:70). However, according to Tommy Black Mark Lang (see footnote 7), parents "had to observe some taboos to ensure a successful process."

3 Risks of intentional head shaping

To exert compression on a child's head was not without risk (Tiesler 2014:52-5). Charles Hose described the consequences that might result if too much pressure was used and the skull was forced apart at the fontanelles:
in consequence of the frontal and occipital bone being approximated the
parietals are prevented from joining and the soft hole-like depression
with which every child is born remains in the adult. (11) If the child
is not well looked after the board often injures the nose, and
occasionally deaths are caused by the use of these Tadals (Hose, cited
in Roth 1896: II: 80).

Rare deaths as a result of too much exerted pressure were also reported by Hewitt and Lawrence (1911:69-70). Research has recently focused on the neurological and cerebral impacts of intentional head shaping among the Mesoamerican Olmec and Maya. Levkovic et al. (2007:1137) concluded that there does not seem to be any obvious evidence of negative effects on the societies that have practiced even severe forms of intentional cranial modeling. As far as it is known, none of the different head shaping techniques resulted in alterations in cognitive skill, perception, or sensitivity. According to Riordan and Tiesler (2009:8) this is based on the following assumptions: "First, head modeling does not reduce brain size or inhibit brain tissue growth; brain expansion is redirected toward uncompressed portions of the skull. Second, head shaping is only possible in babies, whose malleable skull caps allow for changes without harming bone or neural tissue."

However, artificial cranial modification resulted in changes to the pattern, shape, and depth of meningeal vessel impressions in the interior of the cranial vault (Dean O'Loughlin 1996:381-2). This bears potential health risks for the child. Side effects, like infection and necrosis, may have been the consequences of procedural problems, such as the lack of hygiene, or mothers' inexperience (Tiesler 2014:54-5). Teschler-Nicola and Mitterocker (2007:274) reported agitation, flushed and puffy faces, conjunctivitis and strabismus as further possible side effects of intentional head shaping.

4 Selected finds

Duckworth (1906:49) reported about a culturally modified skull of an adult obtained in the exploration of the Niah Cave, Miri District, Sarawak. It has a pronounced flattening of the cranial vault and the occiput, signs of pressure subjected on the forehead, an increased curvature of the parietal bones, and a depressed sagittal suture. The latter results in a slightly bi-lobed appearance of this skull (Fig. 1b, 2a, 3c). Unfortunately, sex could not be determined. According to this author, the original examination of the skull revealed a more pronounced distortion than in many other modern [Melanau?] crania from the Baram River area. Today this skull belongs to the Duckworth Collection, University of Cambridge (accession no.: DC5889). This collection includes two further skulls from the same site, collected by Charles Hose during the late 1890s (12) (accession no.: As.44.0.4 and As.44.0.5). Both show clear signs of fronto-occipital flattening with a sulcus on the frontal bone from the tying but without achieving the characteristic shape of intentionally modified Melanau skulls (Fig. 1c, d; 2d, e; 3b). Both skulls were only recently identified as intentionally modified.

The Ethnological Museum, Berlin, owns a skull from Borneo (accession no.: IC-NIs-787) that shows distinct features of fronto-occipital compression (Fig. 1a; 2c; 3a) but had not yet been identified as intentionally modified. Unfortunately, no further information is available for this specimen.

Finally, a half-skull from a private collection with the same signs of artificial modification was studied by the author. According to the provided information this potential headhunting trophy was collected during the 1980s in the Melawi river area. However, the characteristic modification of the natural head shape strongly suggests a Melanau origin (Fig. 2b).

In 1979 six skulls (five female and one probable female) with clear signs of occipital flattening, were recovered from a 19th century burial site near the Lokan river, a tributary of the Kinabatangan river, approximately 80 km west of Sandakan, Sabah (Gleichauf 1979:129f). The flattening was accompanied by bulging of the parietals and a depression along the sagittal suture. Based on metric measurements of the crania an immigration of these people into this area is given as perhaps the most compelling explanation for the presence of modified skulls in Sabah. However, as long as accurate data are lacking, it would be rather difficult to determine whether head shaping emerged from intrusive ethnic groups, or was adopted by local peoples (p. 133). As no reports on the use of the tadal and its local variants outside the Melanau territory in Sarawak are available, it remains open if head shaping in North Borneo was achieved with a similar instrument or with an alternative technique. Unfortunately, the author has no information if these skulls, originally provided by David Horr, would be still available for examination or have to be classified as lost.

5 Remaining questions

The head shaping technique that was applied on the two skulls collected by C. Hose in the Niah Cave (As.44.0.4. and As.44.0.5, see above), north of the main Melanau settlement area, does not fully comply with results obtained by the use of a tadal on other skull specimens (Fig. 1a, b; 2a, b, c; 3a, c). Both present clear signs of frontooccipital flattening by using a board pressed against the forehead by a sort of webbingstrap secured behind the occiput (Lahr, personal communication). However, the tadal's overhead retaining-strap that prevents an increase in the height of the skull vault was either not pulled taut, (13) or was missing. In the former case it would indicate an unusual application of this apparatus, in the latter case the device was not a tadal in the strictest sense. Nevertheless, this is not surprising as different practices of shaping heads between neighboring ethnic groups or geographic regions are also known from islands in the Philippines as well as Nias and Sulawesi (Dingwall 1931:123,127-9,130-1). Flower (1881), for example, reported that within British Columbia and Washington: "each small tribe often had a particular method of its own" (49), and "The methods by which this particular kind of deformity was produced varied in detail in different tribes" (51).

Alternatively, it may be speculated that these two Niah Cave skulls belonged to persons from outside Borneo:

(i) Fronto-occipital head shaping was practiced in the Philippines, and there was regular contact with Borneo's northwestern coast ethnic groups. The modified skulls portrayed in the Crania Ethnica Philippinica (Koeze 1904: Table 16-19) resemble these two Niah cave skulls--they do not indicate the use of an overhead retaining-strap, which is a characteristic of the Melanau tadal.

(ii) Different ethnic groups in south Sulawesi, for example the Bantik and Bugi, used a head shaping device (pepeseh) that closely resembles a tadal, but lacks the overhead retaining-strap that prevents the skull from compensatory elongation (Riedel 1875:11; Imbelloni 1934:175-7, footnote 3, Fig. 11). Another explanation would be that the head shape of these two skulls was achieved by another unique apparatus that was in use by the natives of Buool, north Sulawesi, and in central Sulawesi. It was called toene, and represented a combination of a cradle in which the child was laying on its back - the head resting on a pad - and a small wooden board. Close-fitting cords, which were affixed to the upper end of the cradle, the board, and a bolster beneath the babys neck, pressed this board on the forehead and flattened it (Hoevell 1892:190-2).

6 Unintentional cranial deformation

Intentional head shaping, as described above, must be distinguished from general skew asymmetries of skulls and from unintentional head shaping. The former has been reported by Le Gros Clark (1934:35) in 52 of 115 (45%) brachycephalic (short-headed) Chinese men from Sarawak. Also Kohler (1901:77) and Meyer (1881a:28) briefly mention asymmetrically deformed skulls from the Sunda Islands, including Borneo. However, an intentional modification may also result in an asymmetry of the shaped skull; this may either be due to an inaccurate application of the head shaping device or result from movements of the child's head which influenced the correct application of the shaping instrument (Fig. 1c, d; 5).


Unintentional head shaping can come about through cultural infant-care practices such as letting a baby sleep with its head constantly in a certain position on a hard surface, for example, securing the child's head on a cradleboard for long periods. Under such conditions the weight of the head will flatten its backside over time (Tiesler 2014:43,64).

Hewitt and Lawrence (1911:70) mentioned "a characteristic flatness often noticeable at the back of a Land Dayak head." As Land Dayaks (syn.: Bidayuh), inhabiting southwest Sarawak and parts of West Kalimantan, did not practice cultural head shaping it most probably resulted from unintentional flattening of the occipital bone caused by a consistent supine sleeping position of children on rigid surfaces (Graham et al. 2005). Yet, unintentional alterations of the cranium are often asymmetrical, and do not occur uniformly throughout a given population.


Although the Melanau performed intentional head shaping until the mid-20th century, our current understanding of its cultural roots is still inconclusive, and the origin of artificial remodeling of the baby's heads among this ethnic group remains obscure. In contrast to the extensive scientific research on artificial head shaping in North, Meso-and South American or European populations, basic questions about this cultural practice in Borneo still await clarification. Further studies are therefore required:
(i) to better understand the historic relationship between sex and
intentional head shaping within different Melanau settlements;

(ii) to determine if this procedure originally focused only on aspects
of beauty or if this explanation is all that remains of an earlier
practice associated with social status differentiation within
stratified Melanau communities;

(iii) if head shaping was performed to distinguish the Melanau and/or
their ancestors from neighboring ethnic groups;

(iv) to ascertain if the tadal or its precursor was developed by the
Melanau or their local ancestors in Borneo, or if it originated in
another geographic region.


Many people have helped me to bring this project to life, either by generously providing photographs, or permitting me to photograph and examine artificially modified and unmodified skulls from Borneo. I offer my sincere thanks to the following people and museums: Roland Platz and Claudius Kamps (both at the Ethnological Museum, Berlin), Marta Mirazon Lahr (Duckworth Laboratory, Cambridge), Petra Martin (Ethnological Museum, Dresden), Francine Brinkgreve (Museum of Worldcultures, Leiden), Maria Teschler-Nicola and Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta (both at the Natural History Museum, Vienna), Vera Tiesler (Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan), and Clifford Sather who provided me a photograph portraying a Melanau woman with characteristic signs of head shaping (Fig. 4c).

I thank Elisabeth Reicher and Heinz Gratzer (both at the Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna) for their great helpfulness and prompt support in literature research.

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Matteottiplatz 2/26/15 A-1160 Vienna, AUSTRIA

(1) The relationship between Melanau and other ethnic groups is discussed, for instance, by Aseng (1989:189-197).

(2) Details of the stratified Melanau society are also presented in Morris 1991:136-201.

(3) The influence of Roman Catholic missions, established in the early 20th century, on the gradual disappearance of head shaping has yet to be studied. For example, by the mid-20th century Dutch nuns were providing midwife services to women from the Mukah river villages (A. Appleton, personal communication). It is to be assumed that due to their work they were also acquainted with the practice of head shaping. As a pagan custom that was also associated with medical risks the nuns may have put pressure on the women to prevent the practice of head shaping.

(4) At this time Meyer was director of the Ethnological Museum in Dresden and had acquired an intentionally modified Melanau skull (Meyer 1881a:27-29); it is still stored in this museum (accession no.: 1443).

(5) Alfred Hart L. Everett (1848-1898) was a respected naturalist and commercial speculator. Having entered the service of Rajah Charles Brooke in the 1870s, he occupied, for example, positions as Assistant Resident of Rejang and Resident of the Baram district.

(6) Kanowit have virtually disappeared as a distinct ethnic group, but were closely related to the Melanau culturally and linguistically (Sather, personal communication).

(7) According to Tommy Black Mark Young, the founder of the Melanau Mini Museum Sapan Puloh Kampung Tellian Tengah, the procedure of head shaping was called jak or melipihbeleng (the latter is composed of two terms: lipih = thin, and beleng = forehead; Ann Appleton, personal communication); reference:

(8) According to Hewitt and Lawrence (1911:70) the Melanau called these packets luan.

(9) Claude Champion de Crespigny was at that time Resident First Class of the Third Division of Sarawak.

(10) However, due to the post-compression compensatory growth of the affected skull bones Hose notes on the application time and duration is questionable.

(11) A similar result was reported by Gerszten (1993:96) who found that a significant proportion (33.3%) of deformed pre-Columbian skulls had sutures that remained unclosed for longer than those from his sample of undeformed skulls.

(12) Charles Hose (1863-1929) was Resident of the Baram District from 1890-1904.

(13) In this case the observed skull elongation would result from the compression of the tadal-strap that is horizontally attached around the head (as shown in Imbelloni 1934:177, Fig 10).
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Mally, Markus
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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