Medieval Women With Artificially Deformed Skulls Migrated to Form Strategic Alliances

Over a dozen southeastern European women with deformed skulls were buried in medieval Bavarian cemeteries, and now researchers think they know why.

A deformed, intermediate, and non-deformed human skull | State Collection for Anthropology and Paleoanatomy Munich
A deformed, intermediate, and non-deformed human skull | State Collection for Anthropology and Paleoanatomy Munich

Artificial cranial deformation (ACD) may look horrific to modern eyes, but the practice was all the rage in certain cultures for thousands of years.

In order to achieve elongated skulls, the heads of babies were tightly bound and, as an attempted protective measure, padded. Over time the binding caused the forehead to flatten and lengthen, while the top of the head rose into a cone shape. The resulting appearance, which by today's standards would be described as alien-like, was permanent and unmistakable.

The remains of thirteen such women from what are now Bulgaria and Romania were surprisingly discovered in medieval Bavarian burials within farming hamlets. Their ACD skulls were not the only characteristics that must have made them stand out among the rest of the population, which consisting of mostly blue-eyed blondes.

"Indeed, while the local men and women predominantly had blonde hair and blue eyes, the women with ACD tended to have darker eyes and hair, and maybe even skin color," Krishna Veeramah told Seeker.

Veeramah, a population geneticist from Stony Brook University, recently led a genomic analysis of the ACD women's remains as well as those for 28 other individuals buried in southern German graves dating to about the year 500. His team's findings, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide the first direct look at the complex population dynamics that occurred during the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages in Europe.

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The transition was marked by two key events: the fall of the Western Roman Empire and migration into the region by various barbarian tribes such as the Goths, Alemanni, Franks, and Lombards. The profound cultural and socioeconomic transformations that took place throughout the continent resulted in many of the European villages and towns that still exist today.

To better understand the population dynamics of this time, Veeramah and his colleagues obtained DNA samples from burials of adults within six different Early Medieval cemeteries. The DNA was then sequenced, analyzed, and compared with both modern and ancient samples.

The researchers discovered that the 13 ACD women shared a genetic ancestry that most closely matched southeastern Europeans, with a minor contribution from Central Asia. The other individuals, by contrast, mostly had DNA that corresponds with modern populations in central and northern Europe.

"Certainly, we would not have thought that we would see such a clear genetic distinctiveness between individuals with normal and elongated skulls," Veeramah said.

An artificially deformed female skull from Altenerding, an Early Medieval site in Bavaria | State Collection for Anthropology and Paleoanatomy Munich

Skulls can naturally vary in size and shape. A few of the buried medieval people had skulls that were described by the researchers as "intermediate" — neither "normal" nor overly elongated.

Israel Hershkovitz, an anthropologist at Tel Aviv University who did not work on the study, toldScience that babies' skulls can accidentally be elongated by resting on hard wooden surfaces or from being strapped into certain carriers. He is therefore not convinced that the 13 women underwent ACD.

The fact that they were all women with similar ancestry, however, "substantiates the assumption for an intentional cause," co-author Michaela Harbeck of the Bavarian State Collection for Anthropology and Paleoanatomy told Seeker. "The deformities were clearly artificial and too pronounced to have been incidental."

She added, however, that "no evidence was found indicating that ACD had a negative influence on the health of these women, and most of them reached an age of over 60 years. According to skeletal analysis, none of the women suffered a traumatic death."

It is even possible that the women held elite status. Their remains, like those for some of the other women included in the study, tended to be buried with jewelry. Such grave goods consisted of items like brooches, beads, and hair combs. Men buried at the same sites, typical of sex-specific assemblages, tended to be laid to rest with weapons.

Early-Medieval grave goods from Altenerding, Germany | Bavarian State Archaeological Collection

ACD is most commonly associated with the nomadic Huns, who invaded much of eastern and central Europe during the 4th and 5th centuries. Attila the Hun (about 406–453) was one of their most successful and notable leaders.

Veeramah said western Europe was on the fringes of the Hun territory, so he and his colleagues are not sure if the women in the Bavarian graves had any Hun ties. While one of the females had Central Asian genetic ancestry, the researchers think that she migrated from the Black Sea region to Bavaria along with the other 12 women around the year 500.

"While clearly moving around was not as easy as it now — we are probably talking a 50-day journey from southeastern Europe to Bavaria — if you read texts from the preceding Roman period, individuals were already traveling large distances across Europe fairly frequently, particularly the elite classes, simply to get training in Latin," Veeramah said.

The Romans left behind a lot of roads, some of which are even present today. The Roman road of Watling Street, for example, runs through Veeramah's hometown of Dartford in Kent, England.

"These women could have been transported in carts pulled by horses, or moved along rivers like the Rhine and Danube, with guards and servants for protection, particularly if they were elites," he added. "Whether the women moved of their own free will is another question we can’t answer."

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The authors theorize that the women might have married or partnered with men in their new homeland, helping to forge political ties. Royals and other nobles throughout Europe are long known to have wedded foreigners they hardly knew for the sake of political gains.

Senior author Joachim Burger of Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz said that the ACD women's presence in central-western Europe exemplifies the "long-range female mobility that bridges larger cultural spaces and may have been a way for distant groups to form new strategic alliances during this time of great political upheaval in the absence of a previous Roman hegemony."

He continued, "We must expect that many more unprecedented population-dynamic phenomena have contributed to the genesis of our early cities and villages."

The scientists are also interested in what the DNA reveals about human health, both then and now. It has been known for some time that people of European heritage carry disease-risk alleles that make them susceptible to certain conditions.

The new study found that alleles increasing the risk of contracting common inflammatory diseases — such as Crohn's disease, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and celiac disease — were already well established in northern and central Europe by the year 500.

"One theory for the presence of these variants is that while they contribute to disease today, they may have reached appreciable frequencies in past populations as a result of positive selection by providing protective effects against pathogens," Veeramah said, adding that the theory is called the "hygiene hypothesis.”

"But," he continued, "as people became 'cleaner' and less exposed to such pathogens in modern times, these variants that were originally useful started contributing to the risk of inflammatory diseases."

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The overall long-term goal of the researchers, though, is to obtain a clearer picture of the extent of migration that occurred during what has popularly been known as the Migration Period, or Völkerwanderung in German, which occurred between 300 to 700 AD.

The scientists also hope to learn about barbarian social organization because these tough, scrappy groups left behind no written records.

"Everything we know comes from the Romans or historians writing well after the events in question," Veeramah explained.

He and his colleagues plan to obtain additional genetic data from numerous European sites dating to the Migration Period. The researchers will pay particular attention to cemeteries associated with the various barbarian tribes.

Harbeck added, "There are also still questions remaining with respect to the women with deformed skulls. For instance, right now we are trying to find out at what age they migrated."

It is even possible that people alive today are on the extended family trees of these women. Future DNA analysis of subsequent medieval generations could at least show if they had children with Bavarian men.