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One of the two elongated skulls belongs to a teenage boy who died 1500 years ago and was buried in a pit with two other boys of different genetic background.     Source: © D. Los/Kaducej Ltd / University of Wien

Ancient Alien-Like Heads Discovered in Croatia

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Archaeologists digging in Croatia have unearthed three ancient alien-like skeletons and two have  artificially elongated skulls. Since 12,000-years-ago in ancient China, all over the ancient world, from Eurasia and across Africa to South America, people deliberately deformed the shapes of their children’s skulls.

Most archaeologists associate this with an effort to identify one’s cultural origins and/or to indicate social status. Using tightly tied leather and cloths, earth filled bag-headdresses, or rigid wooden blocks, skulls could be altered into bizarre shapes if the method was applied to malleable infant’s skulls when they still had plasticity.

In a new paper published in the journal  PLOS ONE , senior author Mario Novak, a bioarchaeologist at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia, said that “the three skeletons were found in a burial pit” in Croatia's Hermanov vinograd archeological site in 2013. Then, between 2014 and 2017 DNA analysis and radiographic imaging was performed to view the insides of the elongated skulls.

The burial pit where the individuals were found — Hermanov vinograd site. (D Los / CC BY 4.0)

The burial pit where the individuals were found — Hermanov vinograd site. (D Los / CC BY 4.0 )

Ancient Altered States

Analysis of the three skeletons revealed that the three male children, aged between 12 and 16, had lived between 415 and 560 AD and that all three suffered from malnutrition. So far as ‘how’ they died, the team of scientist believe they could have had a disease like the plague “that killed them quickly and didn't leave any traces on their bones”. It is known that they died at the same time as the Great Migration Period, a very turbulent period in European history when after the fall of the Roman Empire entirely new cultures arrived in Europe with new traditions.

A report in IFL Science looking the scientists DNA analysis says one of the “ancient trio” had a West Eurasian ancestry and he didn't have any signs of skull elongation . Another had East Asian ancestry and his skull had “oblique deformation” which means the skull was elongated diagonally upward.

CT reconstruction showing one of the elongated skulls exhibits a depressed and strongly inclined frontal bone, indicating tabular oblique type of deformation. (M Kavka / CC BY 4.0)

CT reconstruction showing one of the elongated skulls exhibits a depressed and strongly inclined frontal bone, indicating tabular oblique type of deformation. (M Kavka / CC BY 4.0 )

The third boy was Near Eastern with “circular-erect type cranial deformation ” where the frontal bone, behind the forehead, was flattened, increasing the height of the skull “significantly”, Novak said. The researchers said it is still unclear what cultural groups they belonged to, “though the East Asian boy could have been a Hun”.

Huns On The Run

This extreme type of skull elongation is considered to be a “strong signifier of social identity” and in a 2017 US National Library of Medicine paper, titled Migrating Huns and modified heads, we learn that the migration period of Europe (4 th – 7 th century AD) states the practice of intentional cranial modification “was common among several nomadic groups, but was strongly associated with the Huns from the Carpathian Basin in Hungary, where modified crania are abundant in archaeological sites”.

CT scans of the so-called circular-erect type cranial deformation. (M Kavka / CC BY 4.0)

CT scans of the so-called circular-erect type cranial deformation. (M Kavka / CC BY 4.0 )

A 2014 Ancient Origins article looked at research published in the journal  Neurosurgical Focus which unravels the history, origin, and ethnic context of elongated skulls found in the Carpathian Basin in East-Central Europe. In 453 AD, Attila the Hun died and many Germanic tribes rebelled against the Huns in the Carpathian Basin and the scientists associate the “frequent appearance of artificial cranial deformation in Europe and the Carpathian Basin” with the movements of the Huns into Europe in the 4 th and 5 th centuries and say that the custom survived among the Germanic populations until the early 7 th century.

Transnational Elongated Skulls

To understand why the Huns deformed their skulls, we might look further afield to other discoveries with more revealing data. A 2017 feature in the Independent discussed a scientific paper which analyzed the skeletons of members of the ruling elite in parts of South America who also artificially extended their children’s heads as “status symbols”. They concluded that the practice might have helped “foster a sense of community and collective identity”.

Bioarchaeologist Matthew Velasco of Cornell University said that some 300 years before the Inca Empire swept the southwestern Americas the powerful social elite in a small ethnic community known as the ‘ Collagua’, who lived in the Colca Valley in south-eastern Peru, intentionally shaped their heads to “polarize other groups, resulting in social inequality”.

Child in the process of having its head flattened, and an adult after the process. (Trzęsacz / Public Domain)

Child in the process of having its head flattened, and an adult after the process. (Trzęsacz / Public Domain )

Spanish accounts also record a group called the ‘Cavanas’ deforming their skulls but in contrast to the tall narrow heads of the Collagua, the Cavanas modified their skulls by widening and flattening them. These studies all suggest head shaping among those with power may have paved the way for a “peaceful incorporation for the Collagua into the Inca Empire ” and that standardization of head-shaping practices echoes broader patterns of identity formation across the south-central highlands. What’s more, it may have provided “a symbolic basis for the cooperation of elite groups during an era of intensive conflict,” says Mr. Velasco.

Top image: One of the two elongated skulls belongs to a teenage boy who died 1500 years ago and was buried in a pit with two other boys of different genetic background.     Source: © D. Los/Kaducej Ltd / University of Wien

References

Fernandes D, Sirak K, Cheronet O, Howcroft R, Čavka M, Los D, et al. (2019) Cranial deformation and genetic diversity in three adolescent male individuals from the Great Migration Period from Osijek, eastern Croatia. PLoS ONE 14(8): e0216366. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216366

By Ashley Cowie

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