If Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that we can win political allies through sex and marriage. Not that sexual consolidation of power only occurs in the fantasy realm. Newly discovered and strangely elongated skulls suggest that southeastern Europeans living in the year 500 sent women to live in villages in southern Germany — possibly as a way to negotiate diplomatic relations. So, just as Cersei Lannister’s daughter, Myrcella, was sent to Dorne to negotiate peace, real women in 500 C.E. were sent to live with foreigners in the land that we now know as Bavaria.

In a paper published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of international researchers explain why the elongated human skulls found in Bavarian archaeological sites are thought to be evidence of an ancient bride exchange.

“The population genomic analysis of Early Medieval people from cemeteries in the area of modern day Bavaria provide clear evidence of female-biased long-distance migration and consequently more diverse ancestry of women versus men in this specific context,” write the study’s authors. They suspect these women were sent from Romania or Hungary — places that had been conquered by the Huns — to help solidify treaties or other political bargains.

Researchers suspect elongated skulls (left) found in modern-day Germany belonged to southeastern European women sent to marry for diplomatic purposes.
Researchers suspect elongated skulls (left) found in modern-day Germany belonged to southeastern European women sent to marry for diplomatic purposes.

Genetic analysis showed that the skulls definitely belonged to southeastern European women, and the weird skull shapes helped confirm that hypothesis. The researchers suspect the deformed skulls were made that way intentionally, a practice that was common in Eastern Europe and Central Asia around that time. Parents would do this by binding infants’ skulls when the bone was still soft, making them grow into an elongated shape.

In the study, the researchers conducted genetic analysis on 36 samples of human remains from six early medieval cemeteries in Bavaria and five samples from Munich, which is about 50 miles south of Bavaria. Nine of the samples from Bavaria showed clearly deformed skulls, and the genetic analysis showed these skulls all belonged to women, most likely from southeastern Europe. Genetic markers in the DNA of the other people from the area showed that most of them had blonde hair and blue eyes. The women with elongated skulls, in contrast, would have looked quite different, probably with dark hair and brown eyes.

Not everyone is convinced these women were sent over from Hun-controlled lands, though.

“This is one of the strangest things I’ve ever read,” Israel Hershkovitz, Ph.D., an anthropologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel who wasn’t involved in the study, said in an interview with Science on Monday. “I don’t buy it.” Hershkovitz argues that “treaty brides” would not have been sent over in such large numbers and that it’s unlikely infants’ heads would have been deformed intentionally.

That being said, none of the members of the local population had elongated skulls, and all of the people with elongated skulls were women. Further investigation will be necessary to reveal the truth of the nature of these migrations, but one thing appears certain: These women with elongated skulls were strangers in a strange land.

Abstract: Modern European genetic structure demonstrates strong correlations with geography, while genetic analysis of prehistoric humans has indicated at least two major waves of immigration from outside the continent during periods of cultural change. However, population-level genome data that could shed light on the demographic processes occurring during the intervening periods have been absent. Therefore, we generated genomic data from 41 individuals dating mostly to the late 5th/early 6th century AD from present-day Bavaria in southern Germany, including 11 whole genomes (mean depth 5.56×). In addition we developed a capture array to sequence neutral regions spanning a total of 5 Mb and 486 functional polymorphic sites to high depth (mean 72×) in all individuals. Our data indicate that while men generally had ancestry that closely resembles modern northern and central Europeans, women exhibit a very high genetic heterogeneity; this includes signals of genetic ancestry ranging from western Europe to East Asia. Particularly striking are women with artificial skull deformations; the analysis of their collective genetic ancestry suggests an origin in southeastern Europe. In addition, functional variants indicate that they also differed in visible characteristics. This example of female-biased migration indicates that complex demographic processes during the Early Medieval period may have contributed in an unexpected way to shape the modern European genetic landscape. Examination of the panel of functional loci also revealed that many alleles associated with recent positive selection were already at modern-like frequencies in European populations ∼1,500 years ago.

Photos via Veeramah et al (1, 2)