Three teenagers with skulls deliberately deformed and lengthened have been found buried in a pit from 1,500 years ago in Osijek, eastern Croatia. The scientists behind the discovery also uncovered a twist to the grave tale: the skulls were shaped differently from one another. Could such a peculiar burial pit reveal more about the young men’s lives before death between 415 and 560 CE?
Artificial cranial deformation (ACD) is an “irreversible and deliberate act” performed by adults on infants that takes advantage of the plasticity of the baby's skull to achieve an ascribed identity, according to researchers writing in the journal PLOS ONE. The cultural practice spans space and time on Earth, documented on every inhabited continent and dating back possibly to the Late Paleolithic.
The Croatian skeletons are from a time called the Great Migration, when there were vast movements and interactions between European cultures. During this time, some families would modify the shape of an infant’s heads using boards, pads, bags of earth or clay, or specially made headdresses. Rare nowadays, the practice spanned regions across modern-day Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
The three teenagers in question were buried with animal bones and pottery fragments and suffered from a number of long-term conditions, mostly associated with nutritional deficiency. One boy’s skull was deformed into an oblique shape, another was compressed and heightened, and the third had no modifications whatsoever.
"The most striking observation, based on nuclear ancient DNA, is that these individuals vary greatly in their genetic ancestries: the individual without artificial cranial deformation shows broadly West Eurasian associated-ancestry, the individual with the so-called circular-erect type cranial deformation has Near Eastern associated-ancestry, while the individual with the elongated skull has East Asian ancestry," said Mario Novak of the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia, in a statement.
The team suggests the visual difference could have helped cultural groups distinguish one another. Their findings also lend support to the possibility that Huns introduced ACD to Central Europe, as the teenage boys had a diet heavy in millet and mixed land animals, similar to historically documented Huns and other nomadic groups from Hungarian sites dated to the 5th century CE.
"This [burial] leads us to ask: is this a random peculiarity or part of a larger-scale pattern of association between ACD type and group membership?" wrote the team. "We believe that future multi- and inter-disciplinary studies combining archaeology, bioarchaeology, history, stable isotopes analysis, and ancient DNA, conducted on a larger skeletal sample from a wider region will aid us in answering this question."