12,000 years ago, a boy had his skull crushed in the shape of a cone. This is the oldest evidence of such head shaping.

The ancient peoples of China practiced human head shaping around 12,000 years ago – meaning they tied the skulls of some maturing children, encouraging the heads to become elongated ovals – which in fact the oldest group on record to deliberately crush their skulls, according to a new study.

While excavating a Neolithic site (the last period of the Stone Age) in Houtaomuga, in northeast China’s Jilin Province, archaeologists found 11 elongated skulls – belonging to both men and in women and ranging from toddlers to adults – who exhibited signs of deliberate skull remodeling, also known as intentional skull modification (ICM).

“This is the first finding of signs of intentional head modification on the Eurasian continent, possibly worldwide,” said study co-investigator Qian Wang, associate professor in the biomedical sciences department. from Texas A&M University College of Dentistry. “If this practice started in East Asia, it probably spread west to the Middle East, Russia and Europe across the steppes as well as east across the Bering land bridge to the Americas. ” [In Images: An Ancient Long-headed Woman Reconstructed]

The Houtaomuga site is a treasure house, containing graves and artefacts dating from 12,000 to 5,000 years ago. During an excavation between 2011 and 2015, archaeologists found the remains of 25 individuals, 19 of which have been sufficiently preserved to be studied for the ICM. After placing these skulls in a CT scanner, which produced 3D digital images of each specimen, the researchers confirmed that 11 had indisputable signs of skull shaping, such as flattening and lengthening of the skull. frontal or forehead bone.

the the oldest skull in the ICM belonged to an adult male, who lived between 12,027 and 11,747 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating.

M72’s skull is between 6,300 and 5,500 years old. (Image credit: Qian Wang)

Archaeologists have found reshaped human skulls all over the world, on every inhabited continent. But this particular finding, if confirmed, ” [be] the first evidence of the intentional modification of the head, which lasted 7,000 years at the same site after it first emerged, ”Wang told Live Science.

The 11 individuals at the ICM died between the ages of 3 and 40, indicating that skull formation began at a young age, when human skulls are still malleable, Wang said.

It is not known why this particular culture practiced skull modification, but it’s possible that fertility, social status and good looks are factors, Wang said. The people with ICM buried in Houtaomuga probably belonged to a privileged class, as these people tended to have grave goods and funeral decorations.

“Apparently, these young people were treated with a decent funeral, which might suggest a high socio-economic class,” Wang said.

A search of the site in 2010. (Image credit: Lixin Wang)

Even though the man from Houtaomuga is the oldest known case of ICM in history, it is a mystery whether other known cases of ICM have spread from this cluster, or if they grew independently of each other, Wang said.

“It is still too early to claim that the intentional head modification first appeared in East Asia and has spread elsewhere; independently originated in different places“Wang said. Older DNA research and skull exams around the world could shed light on the spread of the practice,” he said.

The study was published online June 25 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Originally published on Live Science.

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