An elongated head was an ideal of beauty among the Mangbetu people, 1930

By RHP | Posted on: December 1, 2013 | Updated on: June 16, 2014
The Mangbetu stood out to European explorers because of their elongated heads.

The Mangbetu stood out to European explorers because of their elongated heads.

The Mangbetu people had a distinctive look and this was partly due to their elongated heads. At birth the heads of babies’ were tightly wrapped with cloth in order to give their heads the elongated look. The custom of skull elongation called by the natives Lipombo, was a status symbol among the Mangbetu ruling classes, it denoted majesty, beauty, power and higher intelligence. Deformation usually begins just a month after birth for the next couple of years until the desired shape has been reached or the child rejects the apparatus.

The practice began dying out in the 1950s with the arrival of more Europeans and westernization. It was also outlawed by the Belgian government, who ruled over colonial Congo.

This skull deformation was created by tying cloth around the head of the baby right from birth, while the cranial bone is still soft.

This skull deformation was created by tying cloth around the head of the baby right from birth, while the cranial bone is still soft.

This deformation usually didn’t affect the brain. As long as intracranial pressure remains the same as with a normal person, the brain should was able to adapt and grow into the new shape of the skull, resulting in no damage beyond cosmetic changes. The brain is a developmentally plastic organ and grows (expands) in the shape it’s given.

Mangbetu people live in Central Africa, in northeastern Congo. The name Mangbetu refers, strictly speaking, only to the aristocracy, which in the 19th century established a number of powerful kingdoms; in looser usage it denotes the whole amalgam of peoples they ruled. The Mangbetu subsist by hoe cultivation, with some fishing, hunting, and gathering. Bride-price includes a substantial gift of livestock. Polygynous marriage is everywhere accepted. Descent is patrilineal. The Mangbetu impressed early travelers with their political institutions and their arts, especially their remarkable skill as builders, potters, and sculptors. They became renowned also for their supposed cannibalism and for their practice of deforming the heads of babies.

A Mangbetu woman and her child.

A Mangbetu woman and her child.

A distinctive coiffure was used to emphasize their artificially elongated heads.

A distinctive coiffure was used to emphasize their artificially elongated heads.


Interesting fact:

  • The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BC in Hippocrates’ description of the Macrocephali or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification.

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