Head-Binding in Paracas: Beauty or Torture?

Monday, June 9, 2014
Sarah Hirschey


On day two of our adventure in Lima, Peru, we were exposed to the fascinating history of various different cultural practices performed by a variety of Peruvian nations. One of the most intriguing of these practices that we learned about is cranial trepanation, in which the skull of the human being is intentionally deformed. This process is performed during early infancy when the skull is the most pliable.

While visiting the Museo Nacional Arqueología, Antropología y Historia de Perú in Lima, we learned about this practice of the pre-Incan Paracas nation (750 BC-100 AD). The museum displays skulls that have undergone three different types of cranial trepanation. These variations employ a variety of methods and result in a different head shape. One type, called tabulate modeling, utilizes a wood panel placed at the nape of the neck and projected upwards; a rope keeps the wood panel steady. It results in an elongated skull that extends upwards. The second type of modeling we saw is trepanning, which also produces an elongated skull. The third type is bilobular results in a heart-shaped, rounded skull that is produced by a very specific method of wrapping cloth.

Researchers strongly believe that this process was used in the Paracas culture as a means to delineate the social status of an individual. However, very little else is known, such as what does each separate shape say about the individual’s specific status? Our tour guide Fernando Benaducci Otayza (who was INCREDIBLY knowledgeable and passionate about Peruvian history!) had the opinion that head binding must have been performed on people of lower classes because it is an incredibly painful process (so, punishing?) with various neurological repercussions. I am encouraged to think the opposite, though simply because the process of head-binding requires a lot of planning and attention for an extended period of time; it makes more sense to me that this time could only be afforded to those of a higher social standing. After all, “beauty is pain” is a cultural saying that has reached just about every corner of the world.

However, the intrigue isn’t so much in whether or not I am “right” or the tour guide is “right”, it’s in the mere fact that there is an elaborate cultural process that dramatically changed the lives of the Paracas people and continues to baffle us to this day. -Sarah