Aboriginal skull reveals the past’s changing shape

ELEVEN thousand years ago a tall and solidly built Aboriginal man lived a hard life. His bones reveal he had arthritis in his jaw, multiple breaks in both forearms and a fractured ankle so severe his shin bones fused together.”Death might have been something to look forward to for him,” the palaeoanthropologist Peter Brown said.But since the skeleton, known as Nacurrie, was discovered in 1948 near Swan Hill on the Murray River it has been the changes to his skull that have been of most interest to Professor Brown.The shape of his cranium suggests Aborigines practised body modification, manipulating the contour of the skull, he said.Nacurrie appears to be the earliest example of the practice anywhere in the world, he said.”You can only change the shape of the head in a baby because the skull is soft and malleable so it can pass through the birth canal,” Professor Brown, who works at the University of New England, said.The skeleton of Nacurrie suggests his skull shape was modified by subtle means, probably by massage from his mother’s hands. Several other skeletons found in the Murray-Darling area also had modified skulls.”It is clear from the archaeological record that a group of people living on the Murray River used to do this … between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago.”Professor Brown said massaging the skull did not cause brain damage because the brain was a flexible organ. The practice was probably done for aesthetic reasons, but no one knows why it had stopped in Aborigines, he said.Cranium manipulation has been common throughout different cultures. By some reports, it was the most popular type of body modification after circumcision, said Professor Brown, whose findings are published in the Journal of Human Evolution.In Papua New Guinea some mothers would bind their babies’ heads with a tight bandage, which created a cone shape, while in South America babies were strapped to cradleboards, creating a flat-shaped head, he said.
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