Studying the Changing Shapes of Human Skulls in Medieval Times

David of Gene Expression broke the news of a new study of skulls from a Yorkshire village, which ‘deepens’ a

“long-standing mystery over the way men’s skulls changed from long to round during medieval Europe.”

Why men? I’ve never heard of the claim that male bones are more sensitive to environmental change during their development than those of women, which is what this the Guardian article quotes. Does anyone out there have a paper which studies this? I have, however, been taught that rounder skulls have less surface area, a common physiological adaptation seen in all animals.

The data of 700 skeletons from the Wharram Percy sites complicates what and how changes in skull shape happened during the 11th and 13th century. Currently there are two hypotheses, one where round skulls are due to gene flow from immigrant populations and the other is one that suggest round skulls were selected and influenced by climate change. But,

“neither [hypotheses] makes sense of the 700 Yorkshire skeletons…

The leading theory, that Scandinavian incomers brought new racial characteristics to the rest of Europe, does not make sense at Wharram, a lonely valley in the Wolds near Malton. Its natural isolation was reinforced during the 200 years of the skull change by plague and sheep blight which soon after led to its abandonment.

The skulls also show that only men were affected, which would not have applied if its cause was new genetic stock. Simon Mays, the human skeletal biologist in charge of the English Heritage study, said: “If immigration was responsible we would expect both sexes to be affected. There’s also the puzzle of why male skull shapes eventually reverted back, becoming similar to those we have today… But the climate at Wharram during the critical period rose by 0.5C and was actually warmer than it is today,” said Mr Mays. “Further, as the weather got much colder in the later medieval period skulls started to become longer and narrower again.”

Because neither gene flow nor climate change can explain why humans skulls became rounder during this time period, people are considering the effects of plague on selecting round skulls. The plague,

“repeatedly devastated Wharram along with many other parts of western Europe. Villagers finally called it a day around 1500, leaving only mounds and the ruined St Martin’s church today.

The study, the latest of 14 volumes on 40 years of excavation at Wharram, also shows that left-handedness was much more common in medieval times, at 15% compared with 8% today. Infant mortality was also unexpectedly low, possibly because illness and poor diet set in only after weaning off breast milk.”

But as David of Gene Expression, “the change between the 11th and 13th centuries precedes the Black Death.”

So what’s going on with these skulls? I wish I had a photo to see just how round these skulls. In my forensic anthropology education, white people, like Europeans, are generally characterized by a doliocephalic shape, which is a fancy way of saying the skull is long. The doliocephalic shape is calculated by taking a ratio of the breadth of the head to its length. Sure there is a lot of variation in populations, but the consensus is that Europeans have longer skulls than round, broad ones as compared to other humans.

I guess the jury is still out on what happened at Wharram Percy and the round skull phenomenon.

6 thoughts on “Studying the Changing Shapes of Human Skulls in Medieval Times

  1. It is not impossible that the long skull was a male trait as any other male trait (heavier jaw, longer nose etc).

    In that era populations were largely static, so that spontaneous variations could be easily passed on to a small gene pool and become a common characteristic. But once a wider genetic pool was introduced a local anomaly would be absorbed and largely disappear.

  2. There was a photo in one of our national papers showing this (and if I can remember which one I will add the link) and the two skulls they showed were quite clearly different. If they have picked the roundest for comparison, I honestly don’t know, but the round one really was much much rounder than the long one.

  3. Weirdly, the paper I know I saw a photo in in the paper copy, doesn’t seem to want to show one with the article in the online version. However, there is a small photo (not great) at Driffield Today: http://www.driffieldtoday.co.uk/news/Wharram-Percy-skulls-conundrum.3151971.jp

    There is also a video clip on the bbc.co.uk website. I can’t find a way to link to it, but it’s called: ‘Oddly shaped’ skulls found. If you use the search the site facility, it should come up fairly easily.

  4. I’d love to see the comparison, archaeozoo… so if you find the link, send it our way, please! Thanks for the comment, at least I know there are photos floating out there.

  5. I have been searching to find if it is true what i was told, that a knot at the base of one’s skull means they are mixed American Indian
    Would it have anything to do with who one is ?
    I know one can from and shape a skull from birth, but the knot at the base of the skull would still be there…Maybe.
    Do you know, have you did ant sturies on it ?
    Snow

  6. hi i want to know if there is different type of shape in human skull, i have see oval shape flat shape and i will like to also know if, the different type of shape… size mean some thing or if it is the different race… of people

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