Origin Of Mysteriously Elongated Skulls In Medieval Women Revealed By DNA Study

Artificially deformed female skull from Altenerding, an Early Medieval site in Bavaria State Collection for Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich

A mysterious collection of elongated skulls found in Germany has perplexed archaeologists for years. A new DNA analysis solves the mystery, but with a disturbing twist: the skulls belonged to women who were traded as brides.

The skulls were shaped from having been tightly wrapped soon after birth, a practice found in many cultures throughout history. The shape was regarded as a symbol of high social standing because it took time and dedication to receive. The practice was popular in Eastern Europe, where it had been introduced by nomadic Huns.

Related: Hundreds of Skulls Discovered In South America Show Widespread Practice Of Infant Head Shaping

But elongated skulls found on 13 female skeletons from around 500 A.D. discovered in southern German towns along the Danube River confused archaeologists. Western Europe was not known to have engaged in this practice. So who were these women?

DNA Reveals an Ancient Practice

In a new genetic study published online in PNAS, a team of scientists led by Krishna Veeramah, who teaches population genetics at Stony Brook University, performed a DNA analysis on the skeletons. The DNA analysis traced their origin to Eastern Europe, not Western.

Based on this finding, the researchers concluded that Western Europeans did not adopt the practice of skull deforming. Rather, these women immigrated from Eastern Europe.

But why? According to the researchers they were likely traded as "treaty brides." Their strange shaped heads would not have been the only reason that these women would have stood out in their newly adopted homes. The DNA analysis revealed that they would have had dark hair, skin, and eyes in a geographic region where blue eyes and blonde hair were most common.

Strategic Brides

Strong (left), intermediate (middle) and non-deformed (right) skulls from the Early Medieval site Altenerding and Straubing in Bavaria, Germany. State Collection for Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich

Related: Ancient Hominin Skull From China Suggests Humans Didn't Evolve Just From African Ancestors

These standout features may have made these Eastern Europeans particularly appealing, said Veeramah. "Our data points to Barbarian tribes in Western and Central Europe specifically acquiring exotic looking women with elongated heads born elsewhere, perhaps to form strategic alliances with other entities to the east, but that the Huns likely did not have much of a direct role in this process," he said in a statement.

In addition to revealing the origins of these mysterious women, the new study also shows that migration during this time period was not restricted to men. In fact, it seems that these women traversed the many miles from Eastern Europe to the West unaccompanied by men, Archeology News Network reported.