Published by Sally Monroe.
Cinco de Mayo is here, and to celebrate the occasion we are delving into our collection to examine what may be the earliest Mexican contribution to modern medicine: a Tlatilcan figurine thought to have been sculpted between 1200 and 700 BCE.
The Tlatilcans were a pre-Columbian people who lived in a large farming village along the shores of Lake Texcoco, near what is now Mexico City, from about 1200 BCE to 200 BCE. They are now most well-known for their small, elaborate, and usually female figurines; these objects are sometimes referred to as “the pretty ladies of Tlatilco,” and are some of the earliest examples of ceramic figures unearthed thus far. Since archaeologists began excavating the area once inhabited by the Tlatilcans in 1942, hundreds of these sculptural figures have been found in what was once burial sites, situated alongside the dead. Ranging from 3 to 12 inches in height, the “pretty ladies” are easily distinguishable by their tiny waists, wide hips, large thighs and lack of hands or feet (this has prompted some to describe their arms and legs as “flipper-like”). About a dozen of the Tlatilcan figures recovered thus far, including the one in our collection, have a much more intriguing feature, however: bicephalic heads.
For several decades, art historians speculated that these unusual double-headed figurines represented some dualistic aspect of the Tlatilcan religion. Whether they represented a particular mythical deity or perhaps symbolized broader concepts of good and evil was, of course, all speculative, as there is no contemporaneous documentation to draw on. In 2000, a medical doctor from the University of Pennsylvania, Gordon Bendersky, came forward with a markedly different theory: that the two-headed figurines were, in fact, scientific documentation of a condition called diprosopus.
Diprosopus is an exceedingly rare congenital defect. Also known as craniofacial duplication, diprosopus occurs when a particular protein responsible for determining the width of facial features behaves abnormally, resulting in a fetus with a single body but two identical faces fused together. Since 1642, only 85 cases have been reported. Of these, most are stillborn, and there are no known instances of humans with diprosopus surviving longer than two months (a cat from Massachusetts with the defect, however, is purported to have lived to be 15).
Why would the Tlatilcans be so interested in documenting cases of an anomalous congenital disorder? Bendersky does not have an answer to that question, but he is unwavering in his conviction that the double-faced figurines are in fact representations of diprosopus cases. He spent two years comparing the Tlatilcan artifacts to photographs of infants with craniofacial duplication, later declaring that the ancient sculptors must have been “very thoroughly” familiar with the defect. He points to the fact that there are no Tlatilcan sculptural figures with multiple arms or legs; they seem to have been fixated on faces alone. Other supporters of his theory have noted that the Tlatilcans were a sub-society of the Olmec civilization, and while they shared many other facets of their culture with the Olmecs, they were alone in their fascination with two-headed figures. Some have theorized that this evidence indicates that the village on Lake Texcoco may have been a cluster site of conjoined twin births.
Dr. Bendersky has further posited that the Tlatilcan figurines are “the oldest scientifically medical images in world history.” They do, after all, predate the first accurate anatomical illustrations by Vesalius and others by more than 2,000 years. There is, unfortunately, not enough evidence to concretely confirm nor deny Bendersky’s hypothesis, but the idea that these miniature figurines might represent the first attempt to depict a rare medical disorder is certainly an alluring one.
1. Diprosopus (Craniofacial Duplication). The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/diprosopus-craniofacial-duplication.
2. Honan, William M. “History of Medical Art Gets a Pre-Columbian Chapter.” The New York Times, 22 Aug. 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/08/22/science/history-of-medical-art-gets-pre-columbian-chapter.html.
3. Kennedy, G.E. “The 3,000 Year History of Conjoined Twins.” Western Journal of Medicine, vol. 175, no. 3, 2001, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071535/.
4. Koontz, Rex. “Tlatilco Figurines.” Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/global-prehistory-ap/paleolithic-mesolithic-neolithic/a/tlatilco-figurines.
Sally Monroe is the current Collections Intern (Library) at IMSS and a graduate student in the Museum and Exhibition Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is interested in the intersection of cultural spaces and representations of pain.