In the summer of 2017 archaeologists were digging near the Crimean city of Kerch. As they got deeper, they discovered some human remains and artifacts from the Sarmatian civilization. The Sarmatians, actually an Iranian people, had a sophisticated culture which lasted some 900 years from the 5th century BC onwards.
The dig was taking place at a burial site in Kyz-Aul. One of the most interesting finds was the well preserved skeleton of a child. Aged around 18 months to two years, archaeologists believe he was a boy destined to become a warrior. And as we shall see, the boy’s skeleton had a very distinctive feature.
Close to the skeleton, which dates back to the second century, the researchers discovered a clay pot and some beads. On the wrist of the skeleton itself was a copper bracelet. But why were the archaeologists digging at this site at this particular time? To answer that, we need to turn to the Crimea region’s geopolitics.
Crimea was previously a part of Ukraine, a former Soviet Union state that became self-governing in 1991. But in 2014 President Putin’s Russia annexed the territory. Crimea is separated from the Russian mainland by the Kerch Strait, a channel that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov.
Putin decided that this new territory of Crimea should be linked to Russia by an ambitious bridge building project. This started in 2015 with a mooted completion date of 2019. Built in three sections, the monumental piece of engineering will span almost 12 miles. And the disruption caused by the construction works is the reason why archaeologists are digging at the Kyz-Aul site, which is near the Kerch Strait.
But back to the skeleton: what is the peculiar characteristic that makes it so remarkable? Well, it has been identified by some as an example of an alien life form. One Russian news source has said that “some adherents of ‘ancient astronauts’ theories claim that the owners of such lengthened skulls may be human-extraterrestrial hybrids.” Moreover, when you take a look at the shape of the skull, you can see where this idea comes from.
However, scientists have been quick to scoff at the idea that this skull has anything to do with aliens. Nikolay Sudarev of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Archaeology Institute is one. He told Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, “Elongated skulls were traditional for the Sarmatian culture.”
If that’s so, why exactly did the Sarmatians deliberately deform the skull of a young child? It might appear to us a barbaric and pointless act, but to this ancient people the skull-shape was a thing of beauty. Furthermore, it was a sign that the child would become a successful warrior.
The process of deformation was started at a very early age, before the bones of the skull had fully formed into their natural shape. It’s likely that cloth would have been wound around the child’s head to give it the characteristic elongated form, which would be especially prominent in adulthood. Wooden boards would also have been used to guide the growth of the skull.
The Sarmatians were a warlike people and apparently believed that lengthening the skull would foster aggression in their warriors. Although archaeologists have identified this particular skeleton as being male, the Sarmatians were also well known for the prowess of their female fighters.
Indeed, some believe that the women warriors of the Sarmatian people may have inspired the legendary Amazon female battlers. According to historian David Anthony, “About 20% of Scythian-Sarmatian ‘warrior graves’ on the lower Don and lower Volga contained females dressed for battle as if they were men.”
The first archaeologist to describe this bizarre skull-deformation custom among the Sarmatians was Paul Du Brux. As far back as 1826, he discovered contorted skulls in the ancient burial grounds of eastern Crimea. In fact, the habit of deliberate skull disfigurement has been practiced in many places at various times around the world.
The earliest written material about cranial alteration actually dates back as far as 400 BC. Hippocrates, the Greek physician thought of by some as the father of medicine, wrote about the Macrocephali, also known as the Longheads, who are believed to have practiced skull deformation.
Meanwhile, there were also tribes in the Americas who practiced this deliberate re-shaping of the skull. For example, the Maya of the Yucatan in modern-day Mexico also artificially lengthened the skulls of some individuals. They had two styles of deformation, while the Paracas of Peru had as many as five. It’s assumed that these different styles would have denoted people from different ranks of society.
A combination of lengthening the skull at the top and flattening it at the back was typical in some of the Pacific islands such as Tahiti, Hawaii and Malakula. In Malakula in particular, the practice involved the extreme flattening of the skull.
But it would be a mistake to think that this strange procedure is only to be found in ancient or isolated tribes. In fact, it actually happened in relatively modern times in France. Shockingly, the practice appears not to have died out completely until the dawn of the last century.
The French version of cranial manipulation had its origins in the rural Toulouse region of southern France. Rather than having ritual or cultural significance as with many other forms of skull deformation, it seems that in Toulouse the practice was carried out in the belief that it could have medical benefits.
It was largely practiced among the French peasantry using a piece of cloth securely bound around the skull of an infant. Ostensibly, this was to protect the child from suffering an injury to the head. Moreover, this misguided binding of babies’ heads is also reported to have occurred in other places such as Scandinavia and Russia.
Indeed, an elongated skull was discovered in Russia at Arkaim, an ancient site that has been dubbed Russia’s Stonehenge. The skull, which belonged to a woman, was dated to around 2,000 years ago. And just as with the Kyz-Aul skull, some claimed it was that of an alien. Scientist Maria Makurova was having none of that, though. “Her skull was elongated because the tribe did so by tying up the heads of their children with rope,” she told Russian news agency TASS. “It was clearly a tradition in the tribe.”
So, to the obvious disappointment of those keen to claim that Earth has been visited by aliens, it turns out that there is a perfectly rational explanation for these oddly shaped skulls. The habit of deliberately deforming an infant’s skull may seem cruel to us, but for some in the past it has been an essential expression of their culture.