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Fascinating history of the Mangbetu people who stretched their own skulls

Emily Brown

Published 
| Last updated 

Fascinating history of the Mangbetu people who stretched their own skulls

Featured Image Credit: Hidden Inca Toursa/Rare Historical Photos

Babies' heads are known for being incredibly fragile, but rather than being extra sensitive with their youngsters, Mangbetu people used the fragility to their advantage.

The Central African community lived to the south of the Zande, in northeastern Congo, with the name Mangbetu referring specifically to the aristocracy of the community.

Mangbetu people had established a number of powerful kingdoms, and were interested in impressing early travellers with some unusual methods.

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See one of their techniques below:

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According to Britannica, Mangbetu showed off their political institutions and their skills as builders, potters, and sculptors to impress those who ventured their way - but they didn't stop there.

The people became renowned for their practice of purposefully deforming babies' heads to create an elongated skull; an unusual look achieved by tightly binding the children's heads.

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While definitely unconventional, the community's efforts to impress seemed to work, as demonstrated in 1870, when German botanist Georg Schweinfurth became the first European to reach the Mangbetu, according to africa.si.edu.

Schweinfurth's description of his encounter with the people described them as aristocratic and elegant, and made note of their elongated heads with elaborate hair styles, as well as their court dances, royal architecture and arts.

The practice took place across the world. Credit: Sabena Jane Blackbird / Alamy Stock Photo
The practice took place across the world. Credit: Sabena Jane Blackbird / Alamy Stock Photo

The culture intrigued Western photographers and later filmmakers in the first half of the 20th century, though Mangbetu are not the only people who practiced cranial deformation.

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Scientists have found evidence of the practice among the Australian aborigines dating back 30,000 years, as well as evidence of the cranial deformation among the Maya, Inca and ancient Chinese communities.

In Europe, the practice was most popular with tribes which had moved from the Caucasus region of Central Asia, for example the Sarmatians.

There are numerous reasons thought to be behind the practice, including the desire to stand out while also offering a sense of belonging, and giving the impression of intelligence.

The Mangbetu people became renowned for their practice of purposefully deforming babies' heads to create an elongated skull. Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The Mangbetu people became renowned for their practice of purposefully deforming babies' heads to create an elongated skull. Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo
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Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, a Spanish chronicler of the conquest of the Americas, quoted a Mayan as they claimed: “This is done because our ancestors were told by the gods that if our heads were thus formed we should appear noble.”

After discoveries about the practice were made, researchers conducted studies into the impacts of cranial deformation.

In a 2007 paper published in the journal Neurosurgery, it was determined 'there does not seem to be any evidence of negative effect on the societies that have practiced even very severe forms of intentional cranial deformation'.

The practice is much less common nowadays, but it's not necessarily obsolete and is thought to still occur in some remote communities.

Topics: Community, World News, Health

Emily Brown
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