Archaeologists detail origins of elongated heads among ancient Bavarians

"Parents wrapped their children's heads with bandages for a few months after birth in order to achieve the desired head shape," researcher Michaela Harbeck said.
By Brooks Hays  |  March 13, 2018 at 1:00 PM
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March 13 (UPI) -- Genetic analysis of remains from a medieval German burial site has offered scientists new insights into the origins of women with elongated skulls.

Bones from six Bavarian cemeteries showcased the cultural dynamism of the Migration Period linking the Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. The Migration Period marked the end of the Roman Empire. The power vacuum left by the empire's decline in Europe was filled by barbarian tribes like the Goths, Alemanni, Franks and Lombards.

Around 500 AD, the Bavarii tribe replaced the Romans in southern Germany, founding settlements that would become some of the oldest cities in Europe.

Inside these early settlements lived women with cone-like heads, their skulls having been artificially elongated as infants.

"Parents wrapped their children's heads with bandages for a few months after birth in order to achieve the desired head shape," Michaela Harbeck, researcher with the Bavarian State Collection for Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy, said in a news release. "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."

Archaeologists have long assumed the practice was adopted through cultural exchange with the Huns of Eastern Europe, where evidence of the practice is more prevalent in the archaeological record.

But the latest research -- detailed this week in the journal PNAS -- suggests the elongated skulls found in Bavarian cemeteries are the result of human exchange, not cultural exchange or mimicry.

Genetic analysis revealed uniformity among the men from the early medieval cities of southern Germany, with a strong link to populations from northern and central Europe. All of the men boasted blue eyes and blonde hair.

DNA samples from the women of Bavary, on the other hand, revealed more diverse genetic origins, with links to southeastern Europe -- women with darker hair and eyes. Several women boasted genetic profiles most similar to Bulgarian and Romanian populations, while another's genetic lineage traced to East Asia.

The DNA of two women, who came to Bavaria after those with elongated skulls, revealed a genetic profile most similar to modern Greeks and Turks.

"Archaeologically, they are not that different from the rest of the population," Joachim Burger, a population geneticist at the University of Mainz, told National Geographic. "Genetically, they are totally different."

While the women came with anatomical evidence of their cultural origins -- their elongated skulls -- they appear to have adopted the culture of their new home, Bavaria. The genetic diversity of the women of the Bavarian burials suggests female migration was prevalent during the early Middle Ages, a time of political upheaval.

Archaeologists suggest the women may have been sent to marry Bavarian men as a part of a strategic exchange.

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

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