Melanesian Modeled Skulls, Mortuary Ritual, and Dental X-Rays

Michelle Bonogofsky and Jeremy Graham

in The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head

Published by University Press of Florida

Published in print May 2011 | ISBN: 9780813035567
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780813041766 | DOI:
Melanesian Modeled Skulls, Mortuary Ritual, and Dental X-Rays

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Perceived attractiveness and fecundity in youthful male and female individuals were determining factors in the selection of skulls for postmortem treatment in Melanesia deriving from both relatives and enemies. Strengthening the argument for the consideration of women and children in studies of skulls in archaeological and museum collections, this chapter reviews twentieth-century ethnographic evidence in Melanesia regarding mortuary ritual and presents a case study that uses dental x-rays to age a modeled skull from the Sepik River region of New Guinea. The Sepik River skull, determined to be that of a child between three and four years old, is unlikely to be a biological ancestor and provides a comparative example for recent work in the Neolithic Near East. However, slain enemies, and thus “outsiders,” could be considered ancestors and thus potentially become “insiders” by contributing symbolically to the proliferation and strength of the community because of the deceased's prowess in life.

Keywords: modeled skulls; mortuary ritual; Melanesia; Sepik River; Neolithic; Ancient Near East; ancestors; trophy skulls; fertility; dental x-rays

Chapter.  11319 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Prehistoric Archaeology

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