In Russia’s Bredinsky District on the Southern Urals steppe is one of the most curious and enigmatic locations in all of the world. Arkaim is a site long renowned for its archaeological significance, and in particular what it teaches us about the belief systems and way of life among people in ancient times.

Like many ancient ceremonial sites around the world, Arkaim grants us passage through an ancient window, of sorts, and into a world whose inhabitants were fascinated with the heavens. It dates back to at least the 17th century BC, and likely coincided with the period during which the Sintashta-Petrovka culture had thrived. The site was eventually abandoned, and like many others around the world, forgotten by time.

The captivating nature of the settlement has earned it the nickname, “Russia’s Stonehenge.” Of equal intrigue, to me, is that a body recently uncovered at the site, believed to be around 2000 years old, depicts the uniquely elongated skull of a deceased woman who, as in other ancient cultures around the world, had possessed a misshapen cranium in accordance with tribal traditions.

This unique aspect presents an item of controversy, of course. The cause of the odd shape is well understood by scientists, and recognized as having been the result of a mechanical practice that was continued by some cultures until more recent times. However, rather than debating the cause and intention, I wish to express how interesting it is that so many ancient cultures in different parts of the world (presumably with little or not contact betwixt them) taught themselves this process, and carried out such a strange tradition. The Andean Paracas culture is among the more famous groups to have engaged in artificial cranial deformation like this. At Arkaim, on the opposite side of the globe, we see the same strange practice, which many Eastern Germanic tribes seem to have undertaken just as well. Though it is a question that has been asked countless times already, what purpose would this have served?

There are many theories, including social influences, as well as the notion that some groups possibly even displayed this feature naturally; numerous Peruvian excavations report unborn fetuses bearing similar characteristics, which have led archaeologists to consider whether means other than mechanical deformation had always been at play, despite having been the known cause in a number of other instances. One might speculate, however, that there were other elements at play in relation physiological causes behind fetal cranial elongation, but that’s beyond the scope of the present discussion.

While many modern advocates of “ancient astronaut theories” suppose that the aim had been toward emulating the appearance of enlightened extraterrestrial beings, the possible natural occurrence of skull elongation in Peruvian cultures may suggest they had, in fact, been seeking to emulate the appearance of those who possessed the trait apart from mechanical means introduced after birth. What is fascinating, however, is that the remains from such a variety of different ancient cultures around the world would display these same unique characteristics.

Though it remains a viewpoint favored only by a minority of anthropologists, some have even suggested that such curious features across many different ancient cultures might support a multiregional theory for the origin of our species, in which modern humans evolved from common Homo erectus groups residing in Eurasia and Australia, as well as Africa. In keeping with the theory, similarly elongated human skulls have been found in Australia just as well, which may be among the oldest human skulls to have been modified in such a way. However, genetic evidence is more widely regarded as evidence of humanity’s African origins.

Had the motivations of all such cultural groups been similar, and did they influence one another? Or did the process find its way into various traditions for other reasons, perhaps independently from one another, and yet with such remarkable consistency?

Image by Rama via Wikimedia Commons

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