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From Washington we presented radio Smithsonian a program of music and conversation from the Smithsonian Institution. Just how did human beings differ from less animal. Humans have the ability to reason. The ability to perform manual skills. The ability to learn. But one of the more intriguing ways is the tendency of humans to alter their bodies to please each other. I can't imagine a horse getting tattooed or a cow speeding into a tight corset. At the Smithsonian Dr. Thomas good physical anthropologist has made a life study of what he calls body modification. Today Dr. Stuart talks about these modifications and the consequences. But before we talk with Dr. Stuart Frederick M. Phillips talks with Dr. Richard Cowen. The director of the National Museum of Natural History about his experience as chief steward of one of the largest museum collections in the world. Dr. Cowen if if the legendary man from Mars suddenly appeared here in
Washington and asked you to describe the National Museum of Natural History What would you answer for any visitor whether he's from Mars or wherever he may start from the Natural History Museum that he encounters. First of course is there is a building in a sense because that's what the sign out front says this is a National Museum of Natural History. But inside. And the thing that people think all over this country know best are the exhibits of Natural History subjects. Indians animals of all kinds. And so this is the thing that most people get acquainted with and really feel related to. We think of it as a museum of the people because in effect more than the fact in fact the National Museum of Natural History all the other museums in the Smithsonian complex are the people's museums
sense and we are largely supported by taxpayer dollars. The innocence you are the steward for the American people have a vast collection of natural objects. That's right. Actually when the visitor comes through and again the Martian I'm not sure if you are a Martian he'd go to the Air and Space Museum he might very well after he got through with the CIA and the FBI and so forth. But anybody coming through the museum sees we estimate something like perhaps one percent or less than one percent of all of the what we call the national collections capital in capital city because these are the natural history objects that belong to the nation and that we're responsible by law. Actually as well as by our interests in our training to take care of for the sake of American science yes but. For science internationally well how many specimens and objects are you taking care of in the national collection if you don't insist on coming right down to the last one I
can say that is something in excess of fifty two million without being too specific once again because it's almost impossible. How did the 50 million or so objects break down. Well you mean in terms of subject there in terms of subject matter OK. The plant specimens for example runs something like three and a quarter million. I think insect collections if I remember correctly are 17 one thousand million something like that. Anthropology collections are another segment of this. There are a lot of fossils minerals meteorites jams. Well naman if it's in the area of natural history the history of man and man's relationships within the environment of the documentary materials and that's the best way of thinking about the documentary The materials are here. I mention of ALL ago that we are by law the custom audience there is a law goes back to 1876 was just
interesting it's not. I'm only relating this just because of its interest is that it says that collections made on federal funds with federal funds come to the Smithsonian when the collectors are finished with them. Now nobody ever goes around and checks up to be sure that everybody adheres to this but it does give us a an obligation to care for these things in perpetuity. As I said a moment ago the use of scientists here and abroad we loan hundreds of thousands of collections each year. I think it was nineteen sixty eight I think we actually counted something like 750000 or something like a fantastic number of collections alone to research years in this country and over the world are the specimens in the national collections in natural history from throughout the United States up from around the world everywhere everywhere literally everywhere including space. We have if you remember seen some of the publicity we have lunar
dust and lunar rocks being studied in our Department of Mineral sciences to help unravel one of man's most perplexing riddles the origin of the earth. This is an era that's characterized by specialization and it's also characterized by mass communication so that from the time a child is perhaps seven years old or something or even before that he's bombarded by TV and films tips and slides and learns to read books and magazines and go to the movies and hear the radio right now in an era like this specialized interests and a great deal of communication. Does a generalized all purpose museum such as a natural history museum that we have here in Washington still make sense or are we moving toward more specialized museums of botany and anthropology and that kind of thing. Ok to answer that I'm going to have to go back for a moment in your
remarks. As you started to ask this question you spoke of this is an age of specialization believe it or not I'm getting ready to answer the question. This is an age of specialization I'll agree. At the same time the specialists are being required to be generalists in the sense that we are certainly coming into the period in this country and I think internationally where scientists are working together as teams each one contributing a special day. You see but at the same time to a general objective now the same thing I think is what's happening in museums we're not coming to more specific museums but we are coming to museums that tend to integrate information in new ways. Let me give you an example for just what we have in the museum now. You go into a hall that talks about the peoples of Asia and Africa you go into another halls North American Indians another whole people of the Pacific. OK that's interesting and we all enjoy having people millions of people here come and study
these in and get a lot out of it no question about that. But the new approach unquestionably is going to be looked to be along the lines of taking a look at subject areas. How has man solved particular environmental problems. Defense for example. The blowgun have for example has been has emerged from cultures in Southeast Asia the Central Pacific northern South America and Central Africa. Not because they were transported because man had similar problems to defend themselves to get food and had materials at hand. So the human animal took the materials at hand with a similar problem and solved it in much the same way that all recognisable blowguns but continents apart. So in the future we might look at questions in a hall in the exhibit hall and say how does man how did man meet this problem. And then the exhibits help the visitor answer that question. What advantage is there to doing that in a museum setting. Because other than in
through Motion Pictures and Television. Oh I think I think the advantages of having a solid three dimensional objects directly in front of you and of course we are moving into the era of a lot of touch exhibits too we are trying now to develop the wherewithal to establish what we call the Discovery Room which will be boxes of objects shells rocks even freeze dried birds anything and everything of Natural History interest that young people as well as older young people. People are still learning can feel an employee not only their eyes and their ears. But but their hands as well in this learning experience. So I think there are great advantages to this kind of participation. The sense of the real world a sense of reality right a sense of of human experience. Exactly. Rather than that the two dimensional passive spectator experience I think the greatest difference in the result is what I've
sometimes phrased it this way. The person now going back home having visited the Natural History Museum is able to say I saw the biggest diamond I saw the biggest elephant I saw the biggest oil there any place in the world. And that's fine their body is convinced then that he's been to the Museum of Natural History. But you know to me it be terribly exciting if you go home and say I brought home with me to Kirkuk or to New York City or to San Francisco or anyplace else. And I do yeah I brought home with me an idea the idea that man is is a creature that solves problems and has been doing this for the last hundred thousand years or something like that you know he could This gives him something then to build from his daily experience to build on. You don't build on the fact that you've seen the biggest elephant. I'm not knocking our exhibits because these are very interesting I'm trying to look forward to the future in response to your question. What do people come to see at the National Museum of Natural History. That's the hardest thing
in the world to answer. There is a class of people that come because they feel that they ought to. There are many people who come from the surrounding area school children especially who come to learn about a particular subject perhaps they're studying home as my children are Africa and in the geography at school and so they come to see things related to Africa in the museum. Or maybe they're studying birds or maybe they're studying sea life. And these are areas within the museum that they can flesh out their academic. Training that they get out of the textbooks and so many people come to see specific things the hope. Yes. Oh yeah he was jealous under a huge bang. More people ask for specific things like that if they ask at all. They asked Where's the Hope Diamond and where is the big elephant. Where's the tiger now it's a new addition to the list of specials. This is the largest museum of its kind in the world.
Yes. Without getting too technical I think there are probably other certainly some very fine exhibits and perhaps as large in terms of exhibits you look exhibits only at the American Museum of Natural History. If you take it in terms of its exhibits functions and its research functions its educational functions and its curatorial is caretaking functions and by its greatest complex natural history complex in the world yes. Dr. Kahn is the director of the National Museum of Natural History. Now we discussed with Dr. Stuart how and why people change their bodies. Doctors do it is a unique role in the whole of physical anthropology depicting the liver modifications body modifications inflicted on human bodies. This I suppose is to show what you cannot display in skeletons. Well since that is not altogether true because some of these modifications do go through and impress themselves on the bones as for
instance the binding of the head causes the skull to be misshapen and we do have an accompanying exhibit of modifications of the skull skull defamation. And we have another one showing the tooth modification of the filing and the inlaying. But we had the opportunity to pull them all together in this mural. And I had in mind there that the whole hall exhibits a single type of material and that is human bones. And I wanted to remind the viewer constantly that these were once living people and that as far as polished bald we would show in as background material. People in the flesh. And so this mirror all it took advantage of that and shows many of the body modifications as they would appear in life and as you say some of them would not appear in the bones.
Could you describe a little bit what you mean by body modifications and give me some examples. Well the body modification or many sorts we're familiar of course in modern life with what people do to their bodies you know you can pluck the eyebrow is you can either allow the fingernails to grow long and pointed or cut them off short this is a form of body modification. In the Victorian period the ladies wore tight corsets constricted their waists. This left a certain deformity on the rib cage. In China in ancient times until recently many of the ladies bound the feet and they could hardly walk on they had to have special shoes made so they could walk. I didn't realize until I looked at that the picture of the bound feet in the oral but I thought it just made the seat smaller but it doesn't the toes actually are a wonder.
Yes and I can certainly tell him that I had it almost as if this is the value of the mural that did it shows the details. Another type of modification that had long intrigued me. I had seen back in 1987 when I spent a summer up in Bering Sea among the Eskimos the Eskimos on Novak Island punch holes or through their lower lip. And in there they all put a little button of ivory and to the exteriors part they will hang strings of beads. So these are known as lip plugs and of course the males when they don't have the plug and tempted you tobacco the juice trickles out comes this very day the disgusting looking. Then of course I imagine the pointing of the teeth filing the inlay. This is still going on in parts of the Americas but it was a prehistoric culture
custom in America too. There is also the stretching the yellow the puncture the nose the nasal septum. The stretching of the lips with lip plugs and the scarification is common in Africa. The negroes are prone to keel Lloyds wherever they have a cut scar that forms is raised and so by directing this the cuts on the body they can make patterns come out very intricate patterns all over their their bodies. So these are these are some of the more pronounced modifications that are shown in this mural. What do you feel is the idea behind all the origin of some of these modifications for instance the stretched lips. Well this is a very strange thing to account for. I I don't know why anyone would attempt to do this in the first place must be terribly uncomfortable. And according to our
lights it's not attractive. But do they feel do the men do it. Do the women to make them unattractive to other males or do they feel do you think they really felt that this was attractive and desirable. Well the situation varies with each of these customs. I remember reading in one ethnographic report about. Head binding in Melanesia and some of the children had been removed from the area where they did this had by then and taken by the missionaries away from that area and so they didn't have their heads bowed and they were miserable. They felt that they were strange looking and they had missed their opportunity this can only be done when you're a child. In some places these lot of the kids I suppose have real meaning for instance with the Eskimo gals who have lines put on them when they read. Oh yeah there's some of the some of those is symbolic.
We know that some of the head flattening was to identify members of the tribe tribe at the mouth of the Columbia River. Their practice was a true flat head type of head deformity. It was done in the cradle board and the head was put into a sort of a vise that really crushed it down. And if they survived they really had a flat head. But they had slaves and they never allowed their slaves to the former head. In this sense as Washington Irving said this became the sign of freedom. And you could well say what price freedom do you think that this possibly had any did any bright cause any brain damage. I think it may have caused some temporary brain damage they describe this as causing the eye is devolved out and
blood to run from the nose and ears its own and I suspect quite a few of them died in the process. What it did tattooing originate. Well we of course don't know because this is something involving the soft parts which do not last and so we don't recover them from ancient times with a few exceptions and that would be in mummies. We have an exhibit near this mural in the case of mummies forearm of a mummy from Peru which is fully tattooed and I've had an artist fill out the design and in the coming sketch to show what it looked like. That goes back to prehistoric times in Peru and we don't know how much earlier. There one thing that I have learned about tattooing
that I hadn't known. And that is that probably the Western peoples that has your opinions picked it up from the Orient through their sailors the sailors went there in the early sanding ships and saw the custom got tattooed and brought the custom back to the west. It seems to be more prevalent amongst naval people. Yes it is very common among others that is the reason for this as a logical reason. But this still is continuing very much today. You know the Bene revival today in some of the communes in the West I understand and it's being done very frequently now when there is bone involvement in Peru you were talking about some of the skulls that you have that have quite a few holes in the US in the head. Why was this done. Well we can only surmise from what the evidence presented in the specimens we can see clearly that they did it in
cases of fracture. That is clear in the other cases where there are no signs of fracture. We would have to assume it might be for letting the evil spirits out in cases of headache or epilepsy or insanity. One of the cases that we show. Is unfortunately only a copy because the original specimen is in the British Museum in London. What it showed was seven heel holes in one skull. I doubt whether any more than two have been made at a single operation. Probably only one in an operation. But this seems to indicate that an individual could survive many such operations without being done in by. Do you think this is one of the early examples of migraine headaches. From the way the holes are distributed it was migrating had it
in the skin and defamation. Do you feel that most of these were really for for adornment. Well OK Lloyds of the UK Lloyds. Yeah. Yes. This is done in and I and I had a steady pattern and very ingenious patterns at times and they do it with actually buttoning the skin. No they would cut this according to the design they wanted to create. And then apparently rub something dirty or something into the wound which would keep it open while the scar tissue was forming it would enhance the amount of scarring to a certain extent peoples in the Pacific practice this custom. They combine color tattooing with raised patterns.
And I think theirs is the most elaborate next to them perhaps is the Japanese who practice only the color that doing but had a lab or an almost full body patterns with dragons chrysanthemums and flowers and people even portraits I suppose you have no way of telling how much infection will get from this. It hasn't been retained in the bones as I know. No it would not spread to the ball and and I imagine by that time that where we get pictures of such people the art had reached the stage where they could avoid infection. They must have learned enough to be careful in doing it not to transmit infection. Is that more research going on south doing on skeletons and some of the definition of skeletons.
Well I am very much interested and the distribution of refining and of head flattening and tooth mutilation these are the primary ones that we see and I am at the moment working on a purported new tree finding from Peru which Thora T and Peru calls prophylactic. He means by this that it was carried out in childhood has prevented far head extend and later life. This is such a practice is known from the Pacific where they cut holes in the child's head and make sure they didn't have headaches and adult life and I can't quite believe that that is the explanation of the condition
we see in Peru because the area involved is on the very most prominent part of the back of the head. And all of these heads are deformed or flattened on the back and I think that may be what we're seeing is a result of this pressure on the back of the head. And there's been in the grosses of the bone resulting from the pressure. And it simulates how he'll treat fine. That's what I'm setting out to try to demonstrate. It's as if people in Peru have more headaches. Well in ancient times of course this is this was a custom that the Spaniards made the Indian to give up its own as they invaded Peru. It seems to me what people just aren't satisfied with the way they're put together. Well this brings up a point which I think we should consider and that is creating this mural. I
was careful not to create the impression that these are bizarre customs known only to primitive peoples that we are just as likely to do this and that's why right down in front I have this white man having himself tattooed. I could have put it on the Victorian lady with a tight corset I couldn't find a place for her on it. And we also show a padre up in one corner who has a head shaven atonce or and he is talking to a couple of the Iroquois Indians who have the sides of their heads shaved leaving a central Roach and these are all body modifications. But this is something that's a worldwide phenomenon. And I imagine all peoples have invented something along those lines. So. It's not a mark of inferiority by any means.
Dr Stuart is a senior physical anthropologist here at the Smithsonian radio Smithsonian is presented weekly at this time produced by Dan McKeever of the Office of Public Affairs Frederick M. Phillips director. This is Cynthia. I am. The. This is the national educational radio network.
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Radio Smithsonian
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A Collection of Millions and You're More Beautiful With a Flat Head
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Identifier: 70-17-36 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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Chicago: “Radio Smithsonian; 36; A Collection of Millions and You're More Beautiful With a Flat Head,” 1971-00-00, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 23, 2024,
MLA: “Radio Smithsonian; 36; A Collection of Millions and You're More Beautiful With a Flat Head.” 1971-00-00. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 23, 2024. <>.
APA: Radio Smithsonian; 36; A Collection of Millions and You're More Beautiful With a Flat Head. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from