Most Maya people in the classic period had their heads artificially shaped when they were babies. 90% of skulls found from the classic period were molded into one of 14 different forms. The population of a given community would all have the same shape and this was often based on the head form of their patron gods. The maize god’s corncob shape (oblique), and the merchant gods erect form were particular favorites. Within a given community there was no difference in shape between men and women though the oblique corncob shape of the Maize god was often reserved for the very elite.
There were a number of ways used to achieve the desired shapes. These included straps, wraps and a particularly painful looking head press. The process usually began just after birth and continued for a couple of years until the desired shape was reached, or until the child simply refused to wear the apparatus.
The 16th century Spanish writer, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo asked the Maya why they did it. They said, “because our ancestors were told by the gods that if our heads are thus formed, we should appear handsome and better able to bear burdens.”
Ancient Maya Beauty Secrets
– trained to look inwards when she was a child, by tying a ball of wax between them.
False nose bridge made of clay, plaster or jade to streamline her profile.
Flamboyant headdress made of jade, wood, woven fabric, feathers, paper and animal hide.
adorned with shells, feathers, and beads.
- Maya nobility had their teeth filed into various shapes and inlaid with jewels
tattoos. and body paint.
Pierced ears – with huge jade ear spools
Heavy jewelry– made of jade and precious stones.
as a baby to
look like a corn cob
This is Lady Xook, principal wife of Shield Jaguar, the king of Yaxchilan. She's rockin an outfit at a bloodletting ceremony. Let's see what she's endured to look good the ancient Maya way.
Hand woven cotton textiles - the design displayed religious motifs or her community affiliation.
Maya dentists performed many of the procedures you would expect from your own dentist: filling cavities, scraping tarter and pulling teeth. They also performed a range of procedures that you probably won't get from yours: decorative shaping and gemstone inlays.
Maya people from all levels of society had their teeth filed into a variety of points and shapes. The elite went one step further and drilled holes into their teeth for placing colorful gemstone inlays made of jadeite, hematite, turquoise, quartz, and cinnabar.
The result may have looked cool, but the process was extremely painful. The fact that they were able to do such fine work speaks to an amazing knowledge of tooth anatomy.
The Maya found slightly crossed eyes beautiful. To ensure their babies had this desirable feature, high status Maya women hung a bead in between the baby’s eyes. It is believed that this was done to emulate Kinich Ahaw the cross-eyed sun god.
How do we know all this?
Although no clothing or headdresses have survived from the Maya classic period, we still have a good idea of how the Maya elite dressed due to the many painted pots which depict palace scenes (see right). Moreover Maya people were usually buried with their jewelry (ear spools, necklaces, etc) and as these are often made of stone or shells they have survived. As with lintel above, Kings and queens often had their portraits carved into stone monuments by highly skilled artists providing us with a detailed view of how they dressed and looked.
Archaeologists have studied thousands of skeletal remains of the ancient Maya to determine their gender, age, health and when they died. 90% of Maya skeletons found from the classic period show cranial modification and 14 different shapes have been identified.
In this scene from a Maya painted drinking vessel, a Maya ruler checks himself out in the mirror an attendant is holding. Meanwhile, another attendant paints his body red.
Photo by Justin Kerr: K0764
The teeth in these skeletons usually are shaped into a range of designs and the elite often have inlaid gem stones.
In his book Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, Friar Diego de Landa provides a first hand account of how the Maya dressed at the time of the conquest. It is here where we get a description of the cradle boards the Maya used to deform their babies heads, how they hung beads to get their babies eyes to cross and the pain they endured to file their teeth.
A section of Yaxchilan lintel 25.
We added color to this stone carving to bring out the details.
Lesson plans and activities to download