Neuroarchaeology, anyone?

ResearchBlogging.orgBack in Cebu, I once helped in the bone assessment for the Boljoon Archaeological Project, a Spanish contact period site (1500 to late 1600s) situated in a church plaza fronting a scenic beach. While doing the inventory, I noticed that some of the cranium were artificially modified with the frontal bones flattened to a slope–very similar to the one on display in the USC museum.

A culturally modified cranium has traditionally been explained as due to the aesthetic appeal of this morphology among its practitioners. In a brilliant blog review on this practice, a hot cup of joe explains that

For the Arawe, the practice was “purely an aesthetic one” and had no magico-religious or class motivations associated with it. There were no rituals or ceremonies involved and appeared to be done simply because it was found aesthetically pleasing

The Wikipedia post recorded that the reasons for cranial modification are many:

A prominent hypothesis is that deformation was performed to signify group affiliation (Gerszten and Gerszten, 1995; Hoshower et al., 1995; Tubbs, Salter, and Oaks, 2006). Or, it may have been done to demonstrate elite status. This may have played a key role in Egyptian and Mayan societies. Queen Nefertiti is often depicted with what may be an elongated skull, as is King Tutankhamen (Gerszten and Gerszten, 1995).

These hypotheses draw on the archaeological and anthropological theoretical traditions of categorizing the “unusual” to the ideological realm since it is assumed that this cannot be explained otherwise. Generally, archaeologists tend to subordinate evidences of religion and ritual in the archaeological record to supposedly more visible aspects (i.e. technomic and sociotechnic components). They would argue that religion and ritual are mental and cognitive processes and thus can not be investigated “scientifically.” This “invisibility” is rooted in the methodological reluctance of those in the process school to uncover ideological dimensions. Following Walker, I posit that relegating the “unusual” as ideological and immaterial denies the force of ritual and religion to structure the archaeological record, most especially skeletal evidences such as cranial modification practices.

One way by which archaeologists can address this methodological reluctance is to bring in the neurosciences into the fold and make that discipline bear on archaeological questions, such as the case of cranial cultural modification. Neuroscientists have explored the  link between brain trauma and spirituality.  Urgesi et al, using brain lesion mapping techiniques, revealed that the “left and right parietal systems (play a crucial role) in determining self-transcendence and cast new light on the neurobiological bases of altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors in neurological and mental disorders.”

With the neurosciences encroaching on anthropological topics, I think it is interesting for anthropologists/archaeologists to explore cranial modification as an indigenous science that enhances the practitioners’ access to the spiritual world. The effects of brain trauma are  interpreted differently in nonwestern contexts, just as mental illnesses are also culture-bound. Pain has also been known to induce trances and enhances spiritual connection in various cultures; for instance, Catholic penitentes in the Philippines relate a sense of spiritual peace after being nailed to the cross.

I think what is needed is a critical mass of neuroscientists in archaeology to address questions such as this. In the Philippines, where archaeologists are almost extinct, we might have to wait another hundred years for this question to be explored.

Urgesi, C., Aglioti, S., Skrap, M., & Fabbro, F. (2010). The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence Neuron, 65 (3), 309-319 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.026