Why were these 1,000-year-old skulls shaped like ‘sci-fi aliens’?

long skull with regular skulls
Credit: Bavarian State Archaeological Collection

Over decades, dozens of artificially deformed “alien-like” skulls that are more than 1,000 years old have been unearthed in a cemetery in Hungary. Now, these skulls are revealing how the collapse of the Roman Empire unleashed social changes in the region. 

During the fifth century A.D., people in central Europe practiced skull binding, a practice that dramatically elongates head shapes. These altered skulls were so drastically deformed that some have compared them to the heads of sci-fi aliens. …

The practice of artificially stretching heads by tightly binding them in childhood can be traced to the Paleolithic era and has persisted to modern times, lead study author Corina Knipper and co-authors István Koncz, Zsófia Rácz and Vida Tivadar told Live Science in an email.

Related article:  ‘This is what it feels like to be normal’: Experimental stem cell treatment shows promise against Parkinson's

For the new study, researchers examined 51 elongated skulls from burials in the Mözs graveyard, in what was once a Roman province known as Pannonia Valeria. The graves, 96 in all, were divided into three groups and represented three generations, from A.D. 430 until the cemetery was abandoned in A.D. 470. 

Finding people of different origins mingled together in a cemetery suggests that these groups were living together, establishing a community where cultural habits and customs that were once regional … were shared and adopted between groups in the waning days of the Roman Empire.

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