New study reveal origins of elongated skulls in the Carpathian Basin
New research published this month in the journal Neurosurgical Focus , has sought to unravel the history, origin, and ethnic context of elongated skulls found in the Carpathian Basin, a large basin in East-Central Europe centred in the territory of Hungary.
The phenomenon of elongated skulls has been observed in all continents and in different cultures around the world. While there are some skulls displaying features consistent with elongation being genetic , such as those in Paracas, Peru, it is also well-known that various groups of people around the world intentionally modified skull shape through a practice known as cranial deformation, which was performed with the help of strong pressure exerted on the head, typically from the first day of life to approximately 3 years of age.
The practice of intentional deformation of the skull was once widespread all over the world. According to current beliefs, this custom probably appeared independently in different regions of the world, beginning as early as the Late Paleolithic Period, but possibly even earlier. In the Carpathian Basin, elongated skulls date to the late Iron Age, known in this region as the Hun-Germanic Period (5 th – 6 th century AD), and can be observed in all the people of the Carpathian Basin equally– the Sarmatians, Alans, Gothics, Depidics, and Hun populations. More than 200 elongated skulls have been found in the Carpathian Basin to date.
Reconstruction of a 5 th century woman belonging to the Eastern Goth tribes, discovered in Austria. Photo source .
The Huns occupied the Carpathian Basin from the 5 th century from where they led campaigns against different regions of Europe. In 453 AD, Attila the Hun, leader of the Hunic Empire, suddenly died, whereupon many Germanic tribes, rebelled against the Huns and expelled them from the Carpathian Basin. The frequent appearance of artificial cranial deformation in Europe and the Carpathian Basin can be attributed to the movements of the Huns, who flowed into Europe in the 4 th and 5 th centuries, pushing people of different Germanic origin westward. The custom survived among the Germanic populations until the early 7 th century.
A team of researchers from the University of Debrecen and College of Nyiregyhaza in Hungary studied a subset of nine elongated skulls excavated between 1996 and 2005 from two cemeteries located 70 kilometres apart in the north-eastern part of the Great Hungarian Plain. Their aim was to shed light on the origin and historical context of the custom practiced in the Carpathian Basin.
The research revealed that the skulls belonged to both male and female adolescents and adults ranging in age from 15 to 80. All of the skulls displayed characteristics of the Europid race, which characterised the common people of both Hun and Germanic tribes on a large scale. Four main types of cranial deformation could be distinguished – tabular oblique, tabular erect, circular oblique, and circular erect – which were produced through different methods including compression of the skull by firm rigid elements, such as cradle boards or tablets, and binding the skull with more flexible tools such as bandages, bands, tapes, and headdresses. The skulls ranged from slightly deformed to heavily deformed.
Drawings showing different techniques of intentional cranial modification used in the Carpathian Basin. A. Hard instrument pressed by a bandage, B. Simple bandaging, C. Double bandaging. Image source .
Examining the features of the skulls against the backdrop of historical records relating to the great migration of people from Asia into Europe, along with the presence of elongated skulls in other regions throughout Asia and Europe, the study authors concluded that the presence of elongated skulls in the Carpathian Basin was probably related to the movements of the Huns.
The Hun population came into contact with Alan-Turkish people who were in the habit of performing cranial deformation,” the study authors wrote. “Thus the Huns can only be considered to be the transmitters and not the developers of this tradition.
The authors maintain that the custom spread from east to west in 6 phases, originating up to 4,000 years ago. Beginning in Central Asia, in the territory west of the Tien-Shan, the custom spread through the Caucasus and Kalymykia Steppe, through to the Danube Basin (present day Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Czech Republic), then split into three distinct regions – the Middle Germanic Group, in which curiously the elongated skulls were all female; South and Southwest Germanic group, known from burial sites in Bavarian and Rhenish territories; and the Rhone Group – located in the southwest of Switzerland, the east of France, and the north of Italy.
Map showing the spread of the custom of cranial deformation from Central Asia to Central and Western Europe in six phases. I – Central Asian Group, II = Caucasus, Volga region and Kalmykia steppe group, III = Danube Basin group, IV = Middle Germanic group, V = South and Southwest Germanic group, VI = Rhone Group. Image source .
The elongated skulls in the Carpathian Basin belonged to the Danube Basin group, which represented the third phase in the Eurasian expansion of the custom transmitted by the Huns from the east to the west. The study authors believe that the custom might have enhanced the social status of individuals and became of sign of ethnicity in central Europe.
“It is conceivable that the Germanic peoples adopted the habits of the Huns (including intentional cranial deformation) in the first place because they wanted to be integrated into the Hun Empire and adapt to the conquerors in the hope of subsistence and advance,” wrote the study authors.
While the study sheds new light on the custom of cranial deformation in Europe, and specifically Hungary, it is our opinion that the authors have not adequately explained why so many groups of people went to such a great effort to transform their skull shape. In order to uncover this answer, it is necessary to trace back to the most ancient origins of the custom. Were the first groups to modify their skulls emulating an elite group of people that came before them? If so, who?
Featured image: Some of the elongated skulls found in the Carpathian Basin. Photo source .
Molnar, M., Jason, I., Szucs, L. & Szathmary, L. (2014). Artificially deformed crania from the Hun-Germanic Period (5 th-6th century AD) in northeastern Hungary: historical and morphological analysis. Neurosurgical focus, 36 (4), pp 1-9. DOI: 10.3171/2014.1.FOCUS13466.