Researchers discover early medieval women with their skulls altered in Germany

Researchers discover early medieval women with their skulls altered in Germany

  • Artificially-elongated heads discovered in Bavaria indicate high-class females traveled long distances on their own

Women were pioneers of medieval Europe, traveling vast distances across the continent, a new study has found.

Scientists tracing migratory patterns have found unusually tall female skull – a consequence of childhood head-binding – in Germany.

A genetic analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrated that women traveled from what is now Romania, Bulgaria, and northern Greece at a time when the continent was being reshaped by the crumple of the Roman Empire.

Population researchers associate long distances with male members of the elite, while females typically travel shorter distances.

But the new discoveries suggest women could have migrated on their own as part of a strategy to form new alliances.

The study said the women’s elongated heads suggested they may have been high -class.


“These women appeared extremely different to the local women, very exotic if you will,” said one of the specialists, Joachim Burger, a population geneticist at the University of Mainz, Germany.

Working with colleagues from Europe and the US, Mr. Burger compared the genetic profile of around 40 human remains unearthed from 5th and 6th-century burial sites in Bavaria.

They expected to find signs of centuries of Roman presence in the area — soldiers from the Mediterranean leaving their genetic mark on the location population.

Instead, they found the population looked “very central or northern European — blonde and fair skinned, like modern day Scandinavians,” Mr. Burger stated.

The exception was a group of deformed skulls. Known from different cultures across the world, artificially elongated skulls may have been considered a form of beauty or denoted high status because of the effort required to bandage a child’s head, said Mr. Burger.

“This is a sound study with quite fascinating results,” said Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Hublin did not have any role in this research.

“Typically large-distance movements involve more males — explorers, soldiers, political elite — and short-range movements are more common for females, spouses moving to their husband’s family,” Mr. Hublin stated.

It is misty why the women — apparently without men — traveled such a long distance, but the study’s authors speculate that they may have represented strategic alliances between distant populations across Europe.

“They must have come on purpose,” said Mr. Burger. “It’s not a single case, there are quite a few of them.”

Despite their foreign origins, the women integrated into Bavarian society, according to the researcher. They wore the same clothes as the locals and were buried with the same artifacts.

Burger said further research is needed to see whether the women intermarried with the local population.

Artificially deformed female skull from Altenerding, an Earyl Medieavel site in Bavaria
Artificially deformed female skull from Altenerding, an Earyl Medieval site in Bavaria