I am currently busy writing part two of Children of the Ocean God. As you can imagine, in a novel such as this it is important to create an authentic picture of what life was like during the historical period in which the events are set. To achieve this I am weaving into the narrative at various points, key aspects of the everyday life and culture of the Black Caribs. This led me recently to investigate one of their most peculiar customs – head flattening (also called head binding or head shaping).
Head flattening is a painless, gradual cranial modification procedure, which involved binding a newborn’s head between two wooden boards which were wrapped in a cloth which would be tightened by hand. The pressure of the boards, gently and consistently applied over time, would cause the child’s forehead to elongate, creating a nearly flat silhouette extending from the tip of the infant’s nose to the crown of their head. It is also important to note that head flattening appears to have had no adverse effect on a child’s mental development. Black Caribs were indeed widely reputed to be very crafty huntsmen as well as highly skilled military strategists, both of which suggest that they knew how to put their noggins to use.
Head flattening was practiced by the Black Carib women (many of whom were Arawak) since flat, backwards sloping foreheads were seen as a sign of beauty and perfection. However, they were also other ancillary benefits, in particular for their sons, who would later become warriors. The Black Caribs, as well as other Amerindian tribes, believed that a flat forehead was advantageous in combat since if an arrow struck their head it would bounce back harmlessly. Another added benefit is that flat foreheads were supposed to better able to withstand blows from enemy war clubs.
Interestingly many Europeans who observed the practice of head flattening found it very barbaric and abusive, especially since mothers applied it to their fragile newborns infants. Ironically, in Black Carib culture head flattening was actually seen as a sign of good parenting by a loving mother.
The practice of head flattening was not unique to the Black Caribs and other Amerindian tribes in the Caribbean, such as the Arawaks. In fact, it was widely practiced in the Americas (e.g., by the Mayans and Incas) as well as in other geographies around the world including Europe (e.g., France, western Russia and Scandinavia ) and Central Asia. Intentional cranial modification predates written history and is in fact still practiced to this day in Vanuatu. This makes it one of the oldest continuously performed human customs. Fascinating stuff!
What are your thoughts about head flattening? Are you familiar with other unusual traditions practiced by indigenous peoples? Please feel free to leave a comment below I would love to hear from you.