Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dental casts of the Extraordinary Aztec Children, 1853 : Guest Post by Kristin Hussey, Hunterian Museum, London

Kristin Hussey--Assistant Curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons with responsibility for the Odontological Collection--has kindly agreed to write a series of guest posts for Morbid Anatomy about some of the most curious objects in her collection.

The eighth post from that series--entitled "Dental casts of the Extraordinary Aztec Children, 1853"--follows; you can view all posts in this series by clicking here.
"…he looked over an immense plain, extending to Yucatan and the Gulf of Mexico, and saw at a great distance a large city spread over a great space, and with turrets white and glittering in the sun…"
– John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan
In the mid-19th century, explorers like John Lloyd Stephens believed in the existence of a mythical Aztec city lost to time and somehow protected from European incursions. It is not surprising that when two inhabitants of this mystical city appeared on the shores of Britain it caused an instant sensation. In June 1853, Pedro Velasquez of San Salvador, Mexico arrived on the docks of Liverpool with two children he claimed to have taken from the high priesthood of the sacred city of Ixamaya. Known as the Aztec Children, Maximo and Bartola were exhibited across Europe and American for almost 40 years between the 1850s and 1890s. Their diminutive stature and distinctive head shape prompted the scientists of the age to wonder whether these children were indeed the last descendants of a lost ancient people.  For medical men such as Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), the answer to whether the last of the Aztecs had been discovered lay in hidden in their teeth. 
In 1850 Velasquez published his book Memoir of an Eventful Expedition in Central America in which he described his discovery of the lost city of Iximaya and the Aztec Children. In his work, Velasquez included sketches of hieroglyphics in Central American temples showing the distinctive cranial shape of the ancient figures, which he claimed as proof that his Aztec Children were a direct link with a lost race. The ‘discovery’ caused much excitement in medical and phrenological circles. Maximo and Bartola began touring in the United States in 1850, eventually arriving in England in June 1853. So popular was the pair that in July of that year the Aztec Children were brought before the Ethnological Society of London where they were described and analysed by leading anatomical expert and Conservator of the Hunterian Museum, Professor Richard Owen. In order to determine whether the children were in fact Aztecs or something else altogether, Owen only had to look at their mouths. 
After a detailed examination, Owen approximated the age of Maximo and Bartola by analysing the development of their teeth. He determined that both were developing normally and that Maximo, the male, was approximately twelve years old and Bartola, a female was about seven. The teeth Owen saw were sound and not indicative of any disease nor any noticeable difference from a modern child. He did however note a lack of language development seemingly correlated to their cranial deformity. Owen concluded that the figures in the hieroglyphics and the Aztec children only superficially resembled one another. Maximo and Bartola were simply children with an abnormal cranial development. The casts in the Royal College of Surgeons were taken of the pair later that same year, in December 1853. The casts first appear in the Odontological Museum catalogue in 1904, although they were likely acquired earlier. 
We now know that the Aztec Children suffered from microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder which results in restricted head circumference and reduced cognitive abilities. The striking deformity of the skull which accompanies the condition meant that people with this disorder were often exhibited as human curiosities. Despite Owen’s judgement, Maximo and Bartola successfully toured Europe and the United States for a further 40 years, eventually dropping the ‘children’ from their title. While the general public remained enthralled with the idea of their mystical origins, for those with an interest in teeth, the sacred city of Ixamaya may have lost some of its wonder.
Image top to bottom:
  1. Maximo and Bartola c.1867. Source: Wikipedia Commons
  2. Sketches of figures from Central American temples from Pedro Velasquez’s book. Source: Project Gutenberg
  3. Sourced
  4. Advertisement for the Aztecs, unknown date. Source: Wellcome Library, London
  5. Dental casts of Bartola (left) and Maximo (right). Courtesy of the Royal College of Surgeons of England

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