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Researchers discover early medieval women with their skulls altered

A new palaeogenomic study of early medieval people in southern Germany has revealed the presence of women who had their skulls artificially altered.

Strong, intermediate, and non-deformed skulls (from left to right) from the Early Medieval sites Altenerding and Straubing in Bavaria, Germany photo/©: State Collection for Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich

An international team of scholars examined the genomes of almost 40 early medieval people, who lived in Bavaria around the year 500 AD. While most of the ancient Bavarians looked genetically like Central and Northern Europeans, one group of individuals had a very different and diverse genetic profile. Members of this group were particularly notable in that they were women whose skulls had been artificially deformed at birth.

This particular practice has been seen in populations from across the world and from different periods of time. “Parents wrapped their children’s heads with bandages for a few months after birth in order to achieve the desired head shape,” explained Dr. Michaela Harbeck, one of the scholars involved in the study. “It is difficult to answer why they carried out this elaborate process, but it was probably used to emulate a certain ideal of beauty or perhaps to indicate a group affiliation.”

So far, scholars have only speculated about origins of the practice in medieval Europe. “The presence of these elongated skulls in parts of eastern Europe is most commonly attributed to the nomadic Huns, led by Atilla, during their invasion of the Roman Empire from Asia, but the appearance of these skulls in western Europe is more mysterious, as this was very much the fringes of their territory,” added Dr. Krishna Veeramah, who was also involved in the project.

By analyzing DNA obtained from these elongated skulls, the researchers revealed that these women likely migrated to early Bavarian settlements from eastern Europe. “Although there is evidence that there was some genetic contribution from Central Asia, the genomic analysis points to the fact that women with deformed skulls in this region are genetically most similar to today’s south eastern Europeans, and that the Huns likely played only a minor role in directly transmitting this tradition to Bavaria,” explained Professor Joachim Burger of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Besides their deformed skulls, these women also tended to have darker hair and eye color than the other Bavarians they were buried and probably lived with, who primarily had fair hair and blue eyes.

Artificially deformed female skull from Altenerding, an Earyl Medieavel site in Bavaria. Skull deformations like this were formerly attributed to the Huns. However, the new palaeogenomic study shows that while this individual carries Central Asian genetic components, in all likelihood she migrated from the Black Sea region to Bavaria along with other women around 500 AD. photo/©: State Collection for Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich

But the migration of females to Bavaria did not only involve those possessing elongated skulls. Only a little later, two women can be identified who most closely resemble modern Greeks and Turks. In contrast, there was no evidence of men with drastically different genetic profiles. “Most of these foreign women are found with grave goods that look unremarkable compared to the rest of the buried population,” added Veeramah. “These cases of female migration would have been invisible from the material culture alone.”

“This is an example of 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,” stated Burger. “We must expect that many more unprecedented population-dynamic phenomena have contributed to the genesis of our early cities and villages.”

“Interestingly, though our results are preliminary, there are no major traces of genetic ancestry in these early inhabitants of Bavaria that might have come from soldiers of the Roman army,” added Harbeck. “We need to keep investigating on an even broader basis how much Celtic and Roman ancestry is in these early Bavarians.”

Their article “Population genomic analysis of elongated skulls reveals extensive female-biased immigration in Early Medieval Bavaria” appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Click here to read it.

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