The discovery of nine Early Medieval women in Bavaria with artificially elongated skulls, diverse genetic origins and different dietary habits than local people indicates they came from afar, one possibly from Asia, researchers reported Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Prof. Joachim Burger and colleagues even speculate at a reason: import of foreign brides for the sake of strategic alliances.
The genetic structure of modern Europeans largely correlates with geographical location, but previous analyses of prehistoric human hints that today's Europeans originated in massive Neolithic population movements.
Information on later periods has been scanty, not least because the environmental conditions in Southern and Central Europe are tough on organic remains.
Now an international study involving Bavarian, American and European universities and authorities brings intriguing evidence from medieval Bavaria.
"Happily, much of Bavaria (although not all) is covered with loess and we find that in this soil type, the skeletons are preserved very well, and so does their DNA," osteologist Michaela Harbeck tells Haaretz.
Evidence from dozens of remains from the fifth and sixth centuries suggests different movement patterns for men and women, the archaeologists say. In Europe, most of the skulls with artificial cranial distortion date to the fifth century, Harbeck says. "There are only a few cases dating to the second and third century, mainly in Romania and Hungary," she adds.
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The unusual remains of the nine women with cranial deformation were found in southern Germany, not far from Munich – at a late Roman-period cemetery in Klettham, and early medieval cemeteries in Altenerding and Straubing-Bajuwarenstrass.
While it cannot be certain that head-binding was never "normally" done there, Harbeck says she doesn't think head-binding was indeed done regularly in the area they investigated.
These places being inland, the people were unsurprisingly found not to eat much seafood, isotopic analysis of bones showed. But differences were found in the diet of nine women with elongated skulls and the others (in five cases, the archaeologists called the cases "intermediate" – they weren’t sure if the skulls had been deformed; also, two intermediates proved to be siblings). They were compared with 13 normal-headed women and nine men.
The researchers also found other key differences – one being that all the men and 11 women with normal skulls were highly homogenous, of north-central European ancestry. They were similar genetically to modern Germans. Two of the normal-skulled women seem to have had southern ancestry, from Greece or Turkey.
But the women with elongated crania were genetically diverse, some evincing northern-central European origin, some south European (typical of Bulgaria and Romania), and one possibly Asian.
Another indication that the women with skull modification originated elsewhere is that head-binding must start in early infancy to be effective. But no children were found with bound heads in the Bavaria of the fifth and sixth centuries, or elsewhere in Western Europe, say the researchers.
Given the differences in genetics and appearance between individuals with and without elongated skulls, the authors think the women came from afar, possibly given in marriage to form strategic alliances in the region.
Whether or not cranial deformation results in cognitive impairment seems to depend on degree.
"There is a discussion going on whether the artificial cranial deformation causes cognitive deficiencies. Some some studies suggest there were several pathological conditions associated with it, including bulging eyes – but this highly depends on the degree of the deformation. I would guess that our individuals, which had only medium deformed skulls, did not suffer from it," Harbeck says.
Studying migration through genetics augmented by archaeological findings is all the rage. We recently learned, for instance, that 90 percent of the population of the British Isles was replaced about 4,500 years ago by a migration from Eastern Europe.
As for deliberate cranial shaping, it's been done from South America to Eurasia, and persisted until modern times.
Leaving the Americas aside, during the late Roman and early medieval periods, cranial deformation was widely practiced by the Huns – a nomadic tribe thought to have migrated from Asia to Europe. Perhaps early Hunnic arrivals from Central Asia to Europe's Carpathian basin region brought the practice with them.
One snag with that theory is that artificially shaped skulls were discovered in Romania dating to the second century, some 300 years before the great Hunnic invasion in the late fifth century, as the Roman Empire wound down. Of course there could have been early travelers. Anyway, the massive movement of the Huns is believed to have triggered other great barbarian migrations, which would ultimately bring down the western Roman Empire.