Possibly the Earliest Deliberate Cranial Deformations Found In China
Our ancestors had many practices that we may find inexplicable, one of these being the intentional reshaping of skulls until they were egg-shaped. In China, archaeologists have found elongated skulls showing the widespread practice of cranial deformations, dating back possibly 12,000 years. The find is expected to offer more evidence that cranial deformations were common in ancient East Asia and was a worldwide social custom in prehistory.
Archaeologists from Texas A&M University, Dallas, were working at the site called Houtaomuga, in North-East China. When they came across a number of tombs, that date back to the Neolithic. They found 25 skeletons between 2011 and 2015. Science News reports that they found “two sediment layers dating to between 6,300 and 5,000 years old that contained 10 skeletons with reshaped skulls”. The oldest of these skeletons was dated to 12,000 years ago based on carbon dating.
The researcher conducted a thorough examination for evidence of deliberate skull deformation. They measured the skulls “to quantify the degree of variation in the modified skulls and typical ones, [they] were computer tomography (CT) scanned” according to the American Journal of Anthropology.
The skulls found had “artificially elongated braincases and flattened bones at the front and back of the head,” reports Archaeology. The researchers established that eleven of the skulls had one of three styles of cranial deformations.
Of the eleven elongated skulls that were found, five belonged to adults and the rest were children. One of the adults was a female and the rest were male. The ages of the individuals ranged when they died range from a child of three to a mature adult of 40.
The Daily Mail reports that historically, “head molding styles fell into three groups: flat, round, or conical”. The modifications of the skull were carried out when children were very young when the bones in their head are soft and pliant.
Sometimes it was done by an adult using his or her hands to mold the child’s skull. Other techniques for molding skulls, included head-binding with flat boards or wrapping cloths tightly around the heads of infants.
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Methods that were used on children for intentional cranial deformation. (OgreBot / Public Domain)
Egg-Shaped Heads a Sign of Status
The practice of intentionally deforming a cranium goes back to at least 11,000 years ago. Evidence for this practice has been found in Western Asia, South America, Australia, and China. It was typically carried out on individuals who were of high status in a group or to demonstrate tribal affiliation.
It seems that the skeletons found in China were all members of a high-status group. This is evident from the number of grave goods, especially pottery and sea shells in the tombs.
The intentional modification of skulls occurred over a very long period to indicate status, wealth, and power. Based on the research, it appears that there were cranial deformations carried out by the people who lived here for a period of between 6,000 to 12,000 years. This means that the practice was carried out for a longer period of time than any other known site.
The skulls offer evidence that intentional cranial modification occurred in this part of Asia. It suggests that skulls were molded for reasons of status and this offers insights into the culture and society of the region in Neolithic time. The discovery by the team from the American university, also shows that this custom was carried out over a much wider geographical area than previously thought and was not just confined to Europe and Central Asia.
Artificially remodeled human skulls unearthed at a site in northeastern China include one of a man from around 12,000 years ago (left in this composite image) and another of a woman from about 5,000 years ago (right). (Zhang et al., American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2019)
Did the Practice of Cranial Deformation Originate in East Asia?
One of the elongated skulls, that of a man, may date to as old as 12,000 years ago. This is one of the oldest examples of this practice found anywhere in the world. Another elongated skull from 11,000 years ago was uncovered in an underwater salt mine in China some years ago.
This seems to suggest that intentional cranial modification may have possibly originated in this part of East Asia. The Daily Mail quotes an archaeologist, Qian Wang “It is too early to tell whether intentional cranial modification first emerged in East Asia and spread elsewhere”. There is no agreed theory on where the custom of elongating skulls originated. Some believe that it evolved spontaneously and independently among several Neolithic cultures spread around the globe.
Was the Oldest Skull Deformed?
However, there are some who believe that the identification of the skull that is believed to be up to 12,000 years, as being deliberately misshapen may be incorrect. While the skull is slightly elongated it is not pronounced. This may indicate that it was not intentionally deformed and there is only evidence for the skulls dating from 6,000 years ago being modified.
Regardless of this debate, the implications of the find in Houtaomuga are very important. They show that intentional skull modifications were practiced in this area in the Neolithic. Moreover, the research can help us understand something of the society and even beliefs of the people who lived in the area in the later part of the Stone Age.
Top image: One of the oddly shaped human skulls discovered in northeastern China. Source: Q Wang / Fair Use.
By Ed Whelan