People’s Skulls Were Deformed Intentionally In Croatia 1500 Years Ago

  • During the 5th-6th century, people used to distort children skulls by applying force. 
  • It was done to distinguish members of different cultural groups in Central Europe. 

In 2013, archaeologist found the remains of three teenagers in Osijek, a city in eastern Croatia. While this excavation was carried out as a part of the bypass road construction in the Osijek, the archaeological site has been famous since the end of the 19th century.

These three human skeletons are nearly 1,500 years old: they belong to the Great Migration Period, during which there were widespread invasions of people and cultures in Europe.

Researchers have recently uncovered a twist to the grave tale: the skulls of teenagers had been dramatically modified. The shape of their head had been deformed intentionally through a process called artificial cranial deformation. This is the oldest known incident of such process in Croatia.

In this process, the normal growth of a child’s skull is distorted by applying a certain force. During the 5th-6th century, the head binding was performed on infants, as the skull is most pliable at this time. The deformation process started a month after birth and continued for half a year.

It was done to distinguish members of different cultural groups. Different shapes were valued or chosen in various cultures, including conical shapes, flat, rounded and elongated ones.

Two Skeleton Had Dramatically Modified Head Shapes

Researchers were able to retrieve valuable biological information of all three teenagers, who shared similarities in terms of sex, age, and health.

  1. All three were males.
  2. They were 12-16 years old at the time of death
  3. They all had bone disorders, such as linear enamel hypoplasia, sub-periosteal bone formation, and porotic hyperostosis.

To extract their bioarchaeological attributes, they combined bioarchaeological analysis, stable isotopes analysis, and radiographic imaging.

Reference: PLOS ONE | DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0216366

They detected two different forms of artificial cranial deformation in two individuals: the skull of one teenager had been compressed and heightened and the skull of the other one had been lengthened obliquely.

Skulls Deformed IntentionallyCT scan of the circular-erect type cranium deformation | Courtesy of researchers 

The genetic analysis of nuclear ancient DNA data shows that all three teenagers had major differences in their genetic ancestry. The one with no skull modification belonged to West Eurasian ancestry, the individual with circular erect-type belonged to Near Eastern ancestry, and the third individual with tabular oblique-type belonged to East Asian ancestry.

Based on these findings, researchers concluded that types of head binding could have been a visual sign of membership in a particular cultural group, and these groups were interacting intimately in a large basin in Central Europe during the Migration Period.

Further multidisciplinary research combining bioarchaeology, ancient DNA, archaeology, and isotopes analysis conducted on a wider skeletal sample (from different regions) will help researchers understand more about the relationship between cranial deformation type and group membership.

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Varun Kumar

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