Cultures & Traditions

Dwarfism and Kyphosis (Hunchback) in Art

Dwarfism and kyphosis (hunchback) are some of the most common types of physical deformities found in the art and archaeology of many societies around the world. A number of historical documents and a diverse folklore also include dwarves from Alaska, Africa, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Hawaii, Ireland, Iceland, India, Korea, Lithuania, the Netherlands, North America, Norway, Scandinavia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. In these histories, dwarves and hunchbacks are typically regarded as special persons, deities, individuals of special talent, or as jesters and objects of humor. Cross-culturally, there have been dramatic and varied attitudes toward individuals with dwarfism, yet the majority of dwarves and hunchbacks who have a documented history are those present in royal courts, those who were “owned, indulged, exploited, traded, and sent as gifts” [1]. The single most distinguishing aspect in the lives of court dwarves and hunchbacks is a combination of being greatly prized, but also the property of an owner. However, each royal court presents a varied environment, a product of the nature of the court itself, its ruler, and its people.

Physical deformity is a recurring theme in Mesoamerican art. The importance of dwarves and hunchbacks in Mesoamerican religion can be seen beginning as early as the Preclassic period (1000 BCE-300 CE) in some of the earliest cultures, such as the Olmec (1200-400 BCE), continuing into the Postclassic period (900-1521 CE) until after the Conquest (1519-1521 CE). A number of ethnohistorical sources document the special roles of dwarfs and hunchbacks in the Aztec royal court.

[1] Betty Adelson, The Lives of Dwarfs: their journey from public curiosity toward social liberation (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005): 4-5.

Elaine Higgins Smith, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2015.

Drawn from

  • Betty Adelson, The Lives of Dwarfs: their journey from public curiosity toward social liberation (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

  • Joan Albon, Little People in America: The Social Dimensions of Dwarfism (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984).

  • Joan Albon, Living with Difference: Families with Dwarf Children (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1988).

  • Elaine Higgins, "Dancing Dwarfs and Courtly Cohorts: An Examination of the Dwarf Motif in Mesoamerican Iconography" (M.A. Thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2007), 23-30.

  • Stith Thompson, ed. Motif Index of Folk Literature, Volume III (F-H) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955-1958).