Cultures & Traditions

Dwarfism and Kyphosis in Art

Dwarfism and kyphosis (hunched back) are some of the most common types of physical disabilities represented in the art and archaeology of many societies around the world. A number of historical documents and a diverse folklore describe individuals with dwarfism and kyphosis in cultures from Alaska, Africa, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece,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, individuals with dwarfism and kyphosis 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 and kyphosis, yet the majority 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 individuals with dwarfism and kyphosis in the royal courts 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 individuals with dwarfism and kyphosis in Mesoamerican royal courts and in ritual performance 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 individuals with dwarfism and kyphosis 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).