New News About Old Bones

I'll be spending so much time at airports over the next month, I might actually get through the old news - not that "old" matters all that much in archaeology.

First off they've discovered that one can tell eye and hair colour to a high degree of probability based on the DNA extracted from old bones (Daily Mail). Tests have confirms accounts that General Sikorski had blue eyes, as did a Medieval woman found buried with monks.

There are so many accounts from the Medieval period where the same important figure, for example one queen of France, is described as either swarthy or lily white, entirely depending on the source. So yes, it might be interesting to know which she was, in order to try to work out why each source described her in such different way.

Like about half of Ashkenazi Jews from Galicia I have blue eyes, so this sort of research into genetic quirks interests me. The consensus these days is that blue eyes are a genetic mutation dating back some 5,000 years ago and indicate ancestry around the Black Sea - Scythians have been excavated with blue eyes, for example. Blue eyes are meant to be a recessive trait, but only two out of my four grandparents had them.

Like the late Elizabeth Taylor, I also 'suffer' from distichiasis - extra eyelashes - another genetic quirk, but a pretty unusual one in humans, and very rare without lymphedema. Psoriasis? Much more common, and partly genetic in the sense that it is meant to imply some Celtic blood in my heritage, presumably a very long way back. 

Copyright University of Nottingham Archaeology Museum.
I also lack canine teeth, and third molars, another weird quirk. The lack of canine teeth means that I would not have made a good vampire - no fangs.

Luckily they have found the first British 'vampyre' - well, technically it was found in 1959, but it wasn't published until recently.  Other 'deviant' burials are known in the UK from this period (AD 550 to 700), but no vampire with a stake through the heart. There is a very well illustrated post about this discovery at i09 here, and the full academic paper on it here.  (I've blogged before about 'vampire' skeletons excavated here and here and here).

They've also found a lot more of those cone-shaped skulls in South America (you'll be relieved to know I don't have one). My post on Strange Skulls remains oddly popular, and I am sure I'll be receiving a lot more emails from lovely folk who've been spending time amongst out alien brethren soon ...

As I discussed before, there are no images of Huns which showed them with deformed skulls, so we had hints of this in literary sources, but it was confirmed only by excavations (reconstruction to the left). The coin of the 'White Huns' from Afghanistan, above, suggests that they too might have practised skull deformation - Attila the Hun is shown with an elongated skull in Renaissance medals, suggesting that they may have copied a now lost ancient image.

Skull deformation was also practised by the neighbouring Alans, though to a lesser degree (photo - yes, I know Alan sounds a bit like alien, but you'll have to take my word for there being no link whatsoever).

The source for "long heads' or Macrocephali go back as far as Hesiod [Catalogues of Women Fragment 44 in Strabo, Geography 1. 13, trans. Evelyn-White]:
No one would accuse Hesiod of ignorance though he speaks of the Hemikunes (Half-Dog people) and the Makrokephaloi (Macrocephali) (Great-Headed people) and the Pygmaioi (Pygmies).
 And Philostratus [Life of Apollonius of Tyana 3. 45-47 trans. Conybeare - both sources]: 
[Apollonios of Tyana asked the Indian sage Iarkhos] about the Men who live Underground (anthropoi hypogen) and the Pygmaioi (Pygmies) also and the Skiapodes (Sciapods) (Shadow-foots); and larkhas answered his questions thus: ‘. . . As to men that are Skiapodes (Shadow-foots) or Makrokephaloi (Macrocephali) (Long-heads), and as to the other poetical fancies which the treatise of Skylax recounts about them, he said that they didn't live anywhere on the earth, and least of all in India.’
Deliberate skull deformation, like foot binding, has gone the way of the dodo, at least in the West. Female genital mutilation, another ancient practise, has not. If anything, with migration, it is on the rise both in the UK and the US. The United Nations recently passed a motion calling on countries to ban it - ie they did not ban it, so like mass rape during war, it is allowed by the UN.

This subject makes me cringe so much, I would rather quote from Rosella Lorenzi's brilliant article:
While the term infibulation has its roots in ancient Rome, where female slaves had fibulae (broochs) pierced through their labia to prevent them from getting pregnant, a widespread assumption places the origins of female genital cutting in pharaonic Egypt.
A lot of 'supporters' of FGM claim it's a very ancient Egyptian practise, but
"This was not common practice in ancient Egypt. There is no physical evidence in mummies, neither there is anything in the art or literature. It probably originated in sub-saharan Africa, and was adopted here later on," Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, told Discovery News.
By the start of the Roman period it was established in Egypt:
"One of the customs most zealously observed among the Egyptians is this, that they rear every child that is born, and circumcise the males, and excise the females," Strabo wrote in his 17-volume work Geographica.
A Greek papyrus dated 163 B.C. mentioned the operation being performed on girls in Memphis, Egypt, at the age when they received their dowries, supporting theories that FGM originated as a form of initiation of young women.
This is an overly long quote under Fair Use, but I know she feels as strongly as I do about the subject, and would want people to be aware of it's horrors - so please do read the rest of her article here. Or I'll be tempted to use an illustration of FGM.

Those with JSTOR access can read more about "Curing Cut or Ritual Mutilation?: Some Remarks on the Practice of Female and Male Circumcision in Graeco-Roman Egypt" by Mary Knight
here. Or in this (free) article in French.

I can never work out if the Romans were just like us - or the complete opposite - and I suspect it was a combination of both. The big quibble amongst scholars remains the issues of how they dealt with the high rate of infant mortality, and I suspect it depended on a large number of issues such as status (free or slave), class, and so forth. Kristina Killgrove has a very good post about this issue: Baby Bones Were Trash to Romans


  1. "The source for "long heads' or Macrocephali go back as far as Hesiod".

    Well let us not forget Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten even 600 years earlier. Yes, representations may only have been stylistic, but it could just as easily been due to Marfans or some related condition. (Or he could just have been some space alien!)

  2. interesting did you know that David Hatcher Childress wrote a book on this topic called: The Enigma of Cranial Deformation: Elongated Skulls of the Ancients;http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&keywords=David%20Hatcher%20Childress%20&page=1&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3ADavid%20Hatcher%20Childress here is a link to it:

  3. Re recessive blue eyedness. Individuals with brown eyes can carry a recessive blue eyed gene (but not the reverse), hence all of your grandparents and both parents could have had brown eyes and you could still have blue eyes if you inherited a recessive from both parents.


I do not moderate comments, but I remove spam, overt self-promotion ("read [link] my much better post on this") and what I consider hate speech (racism, homophobia etc).

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.