Geneticist Suggests Long-Skulled Ladies Were Used as Treaty Brides in Europe
A group of 13 women stood out from the crowd in some southern German villages along the Danube River 1500 years ago. Their DNA suggests they came from another region and they were physically distinct from the norm in the area at the time. The most interesting feature was the women’s skulls – elongated for some unknown purpose – which a German scientist thinks indicates a specific role the women were meant to play in the villages.
Science Mag reports the “tower-shaped skulls” caught the attention of anthropologist and population geneticist Joachim Burger, from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. So he and his colleagues, decided to sequence the DNA from the remains to try to decipher some of the story.
According to National Geographic , the presence of the elongated skulls has puzzled researchers for some time. Scholars know that skull modification took place amongst the Huns in Southeast Europe at the time, but it is an odd discovery to be made in Bavaria.
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Example of a modified skull, a practice assumed to be Hunnic that may have been appropriated by local farmers. ( Susanne Hakenbeck )
Two main hypotheses have been presented so far: the Huns or another intermediary group passed the ritual of head binding on to Bavarian women or the skulls don’t belong to the region they have been found in.
To find out more, an international team of researchers took tiny bone fragments from normal-shaped skull burials from 500 AD and elongated skull burials from alongside the regular graves. The DNA obtained from the human remains dates to the Migration Period (spanning from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages). It was compared to modern populations throughout Europe and Asia.
Results show that the 23 individuals with regular skull shapes, 10 men and 13 women, mostly had genes for blond hair and blue eyes and were most closely matched to modern populations in northern and central Europe. However, the DNA associated with the elongated skulls shows that they belonged to 13 women who had genes for darker hair and eyes, most similar to modern populations in southeastern Europe. Their DNA has been linked to modern people living in modern Bulgaria and Romania. As Burger states , “Archaeologically, they are not that different from the rest of the population. Genetically, they are totally different.”
Young woman in traditional dress at a religious ceremony, Constanta, Romania. June 2007. (Adam Jones/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The paper on the discovery, published in PNAS , explains some of the significance of the results, by stating, “This example of female-biased migration indicates that complex demographic processes during the Early Medieval period may have contributed in an unexpected way to shape the modern European genetic landscape.”
But Burger’s tentative explanation for the women’s appearance in the villages far from home is most interesting; he believes that the women with elongated skulls may have been sent to Bavaria to cement political alliances. The small numbers of the elongated-skulled women in each of the villages may indicate that they were in distinct political realms where the women may have been seen as desirable for marriage with the village leaders due to their unconventional (for the area) appearance . Burger admits that the foreigners may have caused some surprise in the small villages, “There are exotic women with exotic skulls coming to these boring foreign places. Culture clash.”
Elongated skulls have long been a subject of curiosity. The biggest question people have is usually why ancient cultures around the world followed the practice of artificial cranial deformation . In many cases, scholars believe it was a deliberate ritual involving binding babies’ heads to create the longer shape. Most researchers suggest the practice was used to set high status members of society apart from others. But there have also been examples of elongated skulls that are less easy to explain, such as the mummified head of a newborn baby with an elongated skull or even examples of elongated skulls found in utero .
Painting by Paul Kane, showing a Chinookan child in the process of having its head flattened, and an adult after the process. ( Public Domain )
Regardless of the reason behind the cranial deformation of the women who died in Bavaria, there is also debate firing up against them having been used as “treaty brides.” Israel Hershkovitz, an anthropologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel who specializes in ancient human anatomy, is one of the contenders against Burger’s explanation. He told Science Mag, “This is one of the strangest things I’ve ever read. I don’t buy it.”
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Hershkovitz’s argument is two-fold. First, he argues that it was unlikely for that number of women to have been sent out of their homeland at the same time simply to create political alliances, and second, he doubts that the skulls were intentionally elongated. According to Hershkovitz , the skulls may have been accidently altered when the women were babies strapped into carrying packs or laid on hard wooden surfaces.
In defense, Burger points out that no village had many women with elongated skulls and “it would be an extreme coincidence if all the women with elongated skulls just so happened to also have a different ancestry from the rest of the population.”
Lithographs of elongated skulls by J. Basire. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Bavarian skulls on the left and in the middle show signs of deformation; the one on the right is not deformed. Source: Bavarian State Archaeological collection