Skull: A thing or a person? Pt.2


Mutter Museum, Philadelphia (Source: NBC News)

Before we begin, take a wild guess of the following “riddle”:

Do you know what was designed by a professional medical doctor, and drafted and finalized by a pianist?


No Clue? What if I told you the doctor’s last name was Guillotin?

That’s right! It is the famous guillotine. It was created at the dawn of the French Revolution, which is aimed to take away lives equally, quickly, and correctly.

History of the guillotine can be found easily online (or here). I am bringing this up because the guillotine brought one and the most important question upfront: Why beheading is as powerful? Why beheadings horrify us that much? And eventually brought us to the question: When a head is a thing, and when it is a person?

Guillotine, like any other public execution, the key is on the audiences but not the person who is being executed. One may say the execution is a staged performance, and the one who is about to be executed is the climax of the whole performance. The yelling, screaming, and shouting before being executed from the prisoner is a bliss for the dictator, and is a dark and gloomy everlasting image that will imprint in the audiences’ mind. This terrifying image has successfully declared the power of the dictator, or the power owner.

On the other hand, beheading is also a form of emotion expression. Back in the 19th century, Westerners called the Ilongot man of northern Luzon, Philippines cut off human heads because of rage, born of grief, impels one self to kill fellows. They claimed that this act is to find a place “to carry his anger.” Instead of keeping the victim’s head as trophy that most of known some tribes and civilizations in history did, Ilongot men would toss the head away. The act of tossing away the head, “they claim by analogy to cast away their life burdens, including the rage in their grief.” (Rosaldo 174)

In Tibet, there is a Biru Skull Wall near the Duoduoka Charnel Ground. Some artists call the ground the “skull pyramid”. Archaeologists and anthropologists see the wall significant in anthropological research.But for the Tibetans, it is a way to get closer link to the nature and their Buddha. For outsiders, it would be a creepy tourist spot, or an irresistible attraction in the world.

Western anthropologists and explorers in 19th century collected the head os other people as avidly as the “headhunters” they studied. Among all, the tattooed Maori heads were highly prized. Dr. Samuel Morton, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania had more than 1200 skulls to study human cranial measurements. The Shuar heads from the all over Amazon in the 1880s, could be used to trade Western goods.

The ambiguity status of the heads–they are objects that can be owned, traded, displayed and used as a tool for emotion expression. But at the same time, it is still an identifiable person. It represents the power and morality at the same time. It could be an entertaining but also depressing object.

When would it be a thing, and when would it be a person? It seems like the boundary is not that sharp after all. Skulls are so powerful that even with tons of colors, and festive decorations, still would remind us about death.The alert of everyone at the very end would be just bones threatened and haunted the audience, just like the guillotine. Without mentioning the bodies of the skull, and only with the skull alone, we are disturbed by the images.

Previous episode:

Skull: A thing or a person? Pt.1


Biru Skull Wall

Heller, Steven. 2014. “The Immortal Mortal Appeal of the Skull,” The Atlantic.

Jay, Mike. 2014. “Book Review: Why Beheadings Horrify Us So Much,” The Wall Street Journal.

Rosaldo, Renato. 1993. “Introduction: Grief and a Headhunter’sRage,” Culture and Truth: Remarking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press; London: Taylor & Francis.

Forensics and Race: Why Anthropologists Need to Identify It ?

Forensic Anthropologist begins the job by establishing biological profile after has identified the remains are human. The items in the biological profile include sex, age, ancestry, and stature. These all come down to a hope on making a positive identification from police’s missing person poll.

Among the four items in the biological profile, ancestry is the most controversial. Ancestry here usually refers to the classification of the deceased as either Black, White, or Asian.  Anthropologists, especially biological/ physical anthropologist denies the idea that race is biological varied. Yet, we are required, or even has to be good at identifying it. This dilemma has been circulating in the academia for decades, or centuries. Lately, Dr. Robert Wald Sussman has published a book entitled The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, revisited and popularized the debate and discussion on the myth of race again.

Let’s not make the following discuss too much an academic jargon, but a general discussion on race with the help of criminal anthropology, and forensic sciences/ forensic anthropology.

Cesare Lombroso from Italy took Darwinism (the theory of evolution), hinted with a horrifying twist and established a lists of criminal traits, which for some reasons implemented for years. He believes people are born into crime.


Shapes of ear help decide people are law breaker or not, according to Lombroso (Crime and Justice Blog)

He even claims that “This is not merely an idea, but a revolution.” (which is true to certain extents). In 1911’s Criminal Man summarized by Lombroso’s daughter, list of qualities include:

  • Projection of lower face and jaws (prognathism)- mostly found in negros
  • Oblique eyelids- mostly found in Asian/ Mongolian characteristics
  • A nose with a tip like an isolated peak from the wollen nostrils
  • Tattoos are resemble to the hieroglyphics used by ancient men.
  • Missing of earlobe- common to apes
  • A hooked nose
  • Prolongation of the coccyx, aka the tailbone

Cesare Lombroso (from Wikipedia)

Basically, Lombroso sees animals as criminals. He sees them as violent and prone to murder. One type of criminal is known as “the Woman”. He sees criminal as a form of degeneration of normal mankind.

Lombroso adapted his “brilliant” theory from the social Darwinism, which is the brutal application of natural selection to human society to boost the “strong” and disgrace the “weak”. His long list of traits and attributes are helping the stigmatization.

By no means of comparing the following two, but the dilemma of establishing race/ ancestry in the processes of developing the biological profile is in fact sharing the similar grounds. Why we crumbled down Lombroso’s theory but not doing the same to the idea of race?

First, race is a social and culture concept, which till today a lot of people still surprised with it. Quoting Szokan, Dr. Sussman argues in his book race was emerged as a social entity, to as a justification for slavery and imperialism. The brutal adaptation of Social Darwinism mentioned earlier produce the base for the Nazis’ theory of Aryan supremacy and genocide (Szokan 2014).

Admit that, racism is in our daily lives. Be that may where you live, where you go to school, what is your profession, who you interact with, how people interact with you. These all affected by (internal) racism. Even the ordered structure we all born into is still racist. Using the biological variations to classify each other like physical anthropologists do would reinforce the idea that races were “developed using assumptions about genetic relationships and distributions among different human population.”

It is important to remember that forensic anthropologists’ racial identification concept have little to do with or even none to the biological race. Human is one race. In 1942, a student of Franz Boas suggested that there are only clines but no races. Racial traits are factors that distributed independently depend upon environmental and behavioral factors, but not a single genetic factor (Sussman 2014). Variations here refer to physical traits such as skin color. These physical traits not only controlled by one single genes but multiple of them.


The skulls of the three general ancestries: (a) White, (b) Asian, © Black. Byers, Introduction to Forensic Anthropology

Unlike Lombroso, forensic anthropology using race identification not because they believe in one kind of people is superior than the others, or people look different because of the race they belong to. Neither of these is true. Forensic Anthropologist using race as a “pronoun” for the biological traits in terms of a cultural labeling system. This pronoun does not necessarily carry the historic baggage since the development of the Race and the social or historical meaning behind. Forensic anthropologist are really good at matching, but not answering any taxonomic questions of races.  Thus, more and more forensic anthropologists prefer to use the word “ancestry” instead of “race” in order to get rid of the mythical sense of biological race difference.

We all live under the Racism umbrella. Dr. Sussman writes in the Conclusion that “Biologically, Homo Sapiens is on race,…It is only by recognizing this fact and understanding its history that we might one day have a society in which all people are treated with dignity, equality and kindness regardless of their ethnicity or culture.” (Sussman 2014)


Sauer, Norman J. 1992. “Forensic Anthropology and the Concept of Race: If Races Don’t Exist, Why Are Forensic Anthropologists So Good At Identifying Them?” Soc. Sci. Med, 34(2): 107-111.

Simon, Matt. 2014. “Fantastically Wrong: The Scientist Who Seriously Believed Criminals Were Part Ape.” 12 November, 2014.

Sussman, Robert Wald. 2014. “Why Are We Divide by Race When There Is No Such Thing?” Newsweek. 8 November, 2014.

Szokan, Nancy. 2014. “Racial Divide: It’s A Social Concept, Not A Scientific One.” The Washington Post. 4 November, 2014.

Trephination: Putting a hole on your head

Fig. 1: The Extraction of the Stone of Madness by Hieronymus Bosch del Prado. (Google image)

On August 23, 2010, a Hong Kong tour bus was being hijacked by a former Philippine police inspector, Mendoza in Manila. Mendoza claimed that he was dismissed from his job unjustly, and demanded a hearing for himself. Yet, the negotiation went downhill. He opened fire when he was acknowledged that the police had arrested his brother. Nine people on the bus, including Mendoza himself, were killed and some on the bus were severely injured. Among the injured, there was one young man from Hong Kong suffered from severe hematoma, and was sent back to Hong Kong for urgent treatment, namely trephination.

What sort of surgical treatment is trephination?

Trephination “is the oldest documented surgical procedure performed by man.” (Faria 2013) It basically is to drill a hole on a relatively safe spot on the skull to release the pressure inside the cranium, which possibly developed from hematoma. Though it is purely a medical trauma treatment today, trephination was also considered as a “magical”, religious and ritual treatment. Without a doubt, even with advanced medical techniques and knowledge today, “successful implementation of trepanation (Trephination) requires the serious knowledge and training and the procedure itself is not considered as absolutely harmless.” (Russon 2014)

Trephined skulls (i.e. skulls with a hole) are able to be found from the Old World of Europe and Asia, and also the New World, particularly Peru and South America. As above mentioned that trephination is such a high risk treatment, yet archeological findings from the pre-Inca, Peruvian civilization show the treatment of trephination and amazingly many of the treated patients of the prehistoric times survived from the surgery at least for a while, which supported by the bone healing and growth at the edges of drilled holes (Faria 2013). No scientific evidences to support any clinical symptoms improved after all of those prehistoric operations.

Yet, trephination back then was also used as a treatment for epilepsy, headache and various diseases that linked with demons. They believed that by making a hole on the scalp of one’s head would give the demons or the evil possessed a way to escape. In ancient Greece and Rome, instruments for trephination are also developed, which according to Faria, it set forth the engineering of the manual burr hole and electric drill neurosurgeons use for today’s craniotomy procedures. Later on in Renaissance, shape of the trephines had been modified. [Fig 1.]

Interestingly, scientists and anthropologists found that the trephination surgeries made by the Pazyryk surgeon in Siberia followed a strict recommended protocol of the Hippocratic Corpus from ancient Greek, which is believed that have been sat down around 5000 kilometers away (Liesowska 2014). The technique may varied but the care for the patient and the placing of the trephined hole show a similar ethical aim, according to Liesowska.

Then in 19th century, adapted from the past historic meaning, trephination is used in hospitals for mentally ill patients, as surgeons believed that the surgery would change the abnormal behaviors of patients, which in turns make institutions overcrowded. This view was celebrated after observing the famous American Crowbar Case in 1848. A construction foreman got severely injured while helping construct a railway line in 1848. A long bar measuring 3 feet 7 inches in length and 1.25 inch in diameter through Gage’s head. The 13.25 pound rod penetrated his left cheek, and exited the cranium just right of the midline near the intersection of the sagittal and coronal sutures [Fig 2.]. Gage survived but experienced a complete personality change—from being a responsible and energetic person to socially uninhibited individual.

 Fig. 2: American Crowbar Case (wikicommon)

The relationship between behavior change and the surgery is still understudy, especially the meaning of trephination carried out before prehistoric era, given that it may not related to any treatment of any kinds of diseases.

Trephination in a glance:

Ask Smithsonian: Do People Really Drill Holes in Their Heads? [Video]


Faria MA. Violence, Mental Illness, and the Brain- A Brief History of Psychosurgery: Part 1- From Trephination to Lobotomy. Surg Neurol Int. 2013:4-49.

Manila Hostage Crisis.

Liesowska, Anna.  17 September 2014. Scientists to recreate 2,300 Year Old Brain Surgery After Finding Evidence of Successful Operations. The Siberian Times.

Russon, Mary-Ann. 17 September 2014. Successful 2,300-Year-Old Brain Surgery Techniques Now Being Recreated in Siberia. International Business Times.