Cranial deformation as an indicator for cultural membership

Scientists study individuals who lived during the Migration Period

Led by Ron Pinhasi from the University of Vienna, Austria and Mario Novak from the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia the study combines bioarchaeological isotopic and ancient DNA methods to analyze the dietary patterns, sex, and genetic affinities of three Migration Period (5th century CE) individuals who were recovered from a pit in the city of Osijek in eastern Croatia. They are associated with the presence of various nomadic people such as the Huns and/or Germanic tribes like the Gepids and Ostrogoths in this part of Europe. The results of the study are published in the recent issue of "PLOS ONE".

"We were inspired to study these individuals based on their unusual burial context as well as the identification of two different types of artificial cranial deformation in two of the individuals," says Daniel Fernandes, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna and one of two co-first authors of the study.

"Artificial cranial deformation is a deliberate act performed on infants with the aim to achieve a desired skull shape using boards, pads or specially-made headdresses," adds Kendra Sirak, postdoctoral fellow at David Reich’s lab at Harvard Medical School and another co-first-author.

This is a widespread cultural phenomenon that has been recorded in various ancient populations around the globe and that is performed to denote group and/or individual identity, i.e. to distinguish particular people from others or to provide visible evidence of status, nobility or affiliation to a certain class or group.

"While all three were adolescent males with skeletal evidence of severe malnutrition and similar diets, the most striking observation is that they had major differences in their genetic ancestry," says Mario Novak, one of two co-senior authors, a bioarchaeologist at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb.

"Results of ancient DNA analyses indicate that the individual without artificial cranial deformation shows broadly West Eurasian associated-ancestry, the individual with the elongated skull has East Asian ancestry and the third individual has Near Eastern associated-ancestry," continues Ron Pinhasi, head of the ancient DNA laboratory at the University of Vienna, who co-directed the study.

Moreover, the individual with East Asian ancestry is the first individual from the Migration Period with a majority of his ancestry originating in East Asia to be found in Europe.

"Based on the presented results, we propose that the type of artificial cranial deformation may have been a visual indicator of membership in a specific cultural group, and that these groups were interacting closely on the Pannonian Plain during the Migration Period," concludes Novak.

Publication in "PLOS ONE"
Daniel Fernandes, Kendra Sirak, Olivia Cheronet, Rachel Howcroft, Mislav Čavka, Dženi Los, Josip Burmaz, Ron Pinhasi, Mario Novak: Cranial deformation and genetic diversity in three adolescent male individuals from the Great Migration Period from Osijek, eastern Croatia
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216366

Wissenschaftlicher Kontakt

Ron Pinhasi, PhD

Department für Evolutionäre Anthropologie
Universität Wien
1090 - Wien, Althanstraße 14 (UZA I)
+43-1-4277-547 21
+43-664-60277-547 21


Mag. Alexandra Frey

Pressebüro und stv. Pressesprecherin
Universität Wien
1010 - Wien, Universitätsring 1
+43-1-4277-175 33
+43-664-60277-175 33