Study of Artificially Elongated Skulls Breaks Ground on Medieval Migration

This undated photo shows skulls from archaeological sites in present-day Bavaria, Germany. Scientists investigating unusual skulls found at dozens of 5th and 6th century burial sites say they appear to provide evidence of long-distance female migration at a time when the continent was being reshaped by the collapse of the Roman empire. (State Collection for Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich)

(CN) – A first-of-its-kind genomic analysis has settled the debate about why the oddly long skulls discovered in 5th century Bavarian grave sites come nearly exclusively from females, researchers reported Monday.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study notes that the phenomenon called artificial cranial deformation or ACD occurred around the world, from at least the 2nd century to the 20th century.

ACD is associated with the nomadic Huns in the popular imagination, but studies quoted in the article tie the global practice of reshaping the human skull with beauty ideals as well as the denotation of noble rank or other high status.

From left, the top image shows skulls with strong, intermediate and no skull deformation. The bottom image shows the location of archaeological sites from which genomes were analyzed on a map of Europe with today’s borders of Germany and the former borders of the western (green) and the eastern (light brown) Roman Empire. Bavarian sample sites (black square) are shown in the inset.

The reshaping process can be done only in childhood, with great effort, and researchers studying archeological sites in present-day Bavaria, southern Germany, were perplexed why the human remains with ACD were mainly those of adult females.

Some argued that the practice had been culturally adopted in Western Europe from eastern foreign traditions, but Monday’s article says that genomic testing has uncovered support for the other theory: that these women with ACD had migrated alone from distant homelands — journeys previously associated with groups of males, explorers and soldiers typically.

“Given that ACD was a particularly involved and labor-intensive procedure that may indicate a certain role or status in Medieval society, these females may have moved as part of a system in which local Bavarian communities practiced exogamy to form strategic alliances with entities to the east,” the article states.

Krishna Veeramaha of Stony Brook University in New York is the lead author of the study, which also involved researchers from the Bavarian Natural History Collections, the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection, the Bavarian State Department of Monuments and Sites, the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Johannes Gutenberg University, Ludwig Maximilian University, University College London and the University of Fribourg.

The data showed that the women with elongated skulls in Bavaria had much more diverse ancestry than those with normally sized skulls, about 80 percent of whom demonstrated ancestry from northern and central Europe. Researchers found that the women with deformed skulls had a high likelihood for brown eyes, but those without showed high probabilities for blue eyes and blond hair.

This photo shows an artificially deformed female skull from Altenerding, an archaeological site in Bavaria, Germany. (State Collection for Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich)

In addition to their enlarged crania, the study says that different eye, hair and possibly skin-pigmentation patterns would have set the immigrant females apart physically from the local population.

The article calls it noteworthy, however, that the women with ACD were buried with goods that “reflect both local customs and more distant material cultures.”

“This not only indicates a potentially significant level of integration of these women into local life, but also cautions against inferring migration from material culture alone,” the article states.

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