The practice of permanently reshaping the skulls of human infants has incredibly deep, and equally mysterious, roots across the global human population. The very earliest recognised examples of Artificial Cranial Deformation (ACD) are found in Australia, dating back to around 20,000 years before present times. While there remains some question over whether all of the identified Australian examples of such skulls were artificially modified rather than natural several display signs of reshaping.
At the Chinese archaeological site of Houtaomuga, scientists discovered 25 sets of human remains dating from 12,000 to 5,000 years ago. Among these skeletons were identified 11 skulls with artificially elongated braincases. The flattening of bones at the front and back of the head pointed to cradle boarding, tying of wooden boards to the head of a developing infant.
The most recent update in the story of our ancestor’s fascination with changing the dimensions of their heads comes from a site named Hermanov vinograd in the eastern region of Croatia. Archaeologists from the University of Vienna and the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia identified an unusual burial pit in which were located the remains of three teenage boys. Dating of the burial site suggests internment occurred sometime between 415 and 560 A.D.
The three sets of remains were each strikingly different despite representing males of similar age buried in a single location. Two of the skulls exhibited apparent signs of modification through manipulation during infancy, while a third was unaltered. The most significant initial shock for researchers came from the fact the two modified skulls were extremely different, the first being a more rounded example of circular erect cranial deformation. The second modified skull was quite different indeed, being extremely extended at the back, a tabular oblique type of deformation, much alike to the famous Paracas skulls of the Peruvian Andes.
The period in which the burial occurred is known as the Great Migration Period, a time when considerable movements of populations occurred in various regions of Western Eurasia. Much of the great migration was due to the vying for power between cultural groups such as the Goths and Huns as they looked to capitalise on the collapse of the Roman Empire. There is some speculation that cranial modification may have played an essential role in fixing group identity during a time of regional upheavals and displacements.
Seeking to better understand the complex landscape of the era the scientists extracted ancient DNA from the human remains in Croatia for genomic analysis. The results were set to leave all involved quite astonished. Though the assumption was the three young boys would have been directly connected somehow during life, their DNA revealed that they each had a very different genetic origin.
The skulls which showed no signs of modification belonged to a young man with roots in from western Eurasia, most likely Eastern Europe. The second of the youngsters with his stretched but still very much round braincase displayed strong Near Eastern ancestry, perhaps being from a Levantine population. The most significant revelation was yet to emerge, it transpired that the third set of remains with the highly extended cranium belonged to a young man with a strongly East Asian genetic signature.
“When we got the ancient DNA results we were quite surprised,” says senior author Mario Novak of the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia. “It is obvious that different people were living in this part of Europe and interacting very closely with each other. Maybe they used artificial cranial deformation as a visual indicator of membership in a specific cultural group.”
While cranial modification dates back to the Neolithic period in several regions of the world, it did not arrive in Europe until around the 2nd century of the current era. The first European burial sites which include examples of these elongated crania are to be found at locations around the Black Sea region. The strange cultural practice became popular over subsequent centuries before fading away again. Susanne Hakenbeck, a University of Cambridge historical archaeologist who has studied skull modification in Europe, highlights the fact that by the 7th century the redirecting of infant skull development as a standard practice seemed to vanish entirely.
The Huns, a Central Asian migratory horse-centred culture, are usually considered to be responsible for spreading their customs of skull modification to the parts of the continent they moved through. Historians have long speculated that though the Huns were centred on the lands west of the Black Sea, they may have come initially from much further to the east. The researchers in Croatian have now identified some additional support to the theory Huns arrived in Europe from East Asia, probably the Eurasian Steppe, bringing ACD traditions along with them.
“For the first time now we have physical, biological evidence of the presence of East Asian people, probably the Huns, in this part of Europe, based on ancient DNA results,” Novak says.
The exact homeland of the Huns remains in question, even though we know skulls were modified by populations in East Asia long before the practice reached Central Europe there are other possible origin points for the Hun horse-confederacy. One possibility that archaeologists have pointed to is that these invaders had arrived not from the distant east of Eurasia, but instead perhaps somewhere far north of the Black Sea.
The ideal connection would be the discovery of elongated skulls similar to those at Hermanov vinograd at a suitably ancient archaeological site somewhere in the far north. Fortunately, we have a remarkable correlation in the discovery of an elongated skull at the Arkaim megalithic complex, near Chelyabinsk in central Russia. The location si 2500km north-east from the edges of the Black Sea.
While human habitation at Arkaim dates back to at least 4000 years ago, a set of human remains dating to 2000 years before present were uncovered there, displaying stark elongation.
“I would not exclude the possibility that the skeleton belongs to a woman from the Sarmati tribe that lived in the territories of what is now modern day Ukraine, Kazakhstan and southern Russia. Her skull was elongated because the tribe did so by tying up the heads of their children with rope. It was clearly a tradition in the tribe.” – Researcher, Maria Makurova
While genetic studies can tell us a great deal about population relationships and ancestry, they can’t really tell us whether an individual was buried near where they were born. We also don’t know if the three boys in the pit would have self-identified as Goths, Huns, another culture or some mixture between them. The evidence discovered so far leaves us with many mysteries, from how the three young individuals died, to why people of such different backgrounds would end up in the same grave.
Strangely there is no migration period settlement close to the site where the skeletons were found and seem to be a one-off burial not connected to any more massive cemetery. The evidence of a similar diet in the period before the three died suggests they lived in the same circumstances, possibly as part of a nomadic group. The bodies had been interred with the remains of horses and pigs which leads scientists to suspect there may have been a ritual element, possibly including sacrifice of the three youngsters. There is no clear cause of death at this time.