The oldest human skulls that were intentionally elongated were excavated from ancient Chinese tombs at a site called Houtaomuga from 2011 to 2015 (pictures of the skulls can be seen here). Scientists uncovered 25 skeletons that date back from between 5,000 and 12,000 years ago. Of those 25 that were discovered, 11 of them had elongated egg-shaped skulls with five of those belonging to adults (four men and one woman). The age of death for the eleven skulls was between 3 years of age and 40 years of age. This is significant because it was previously believed that elongated skulls dated back only between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago.
The woman that was uncovered was buried with shell ornaments that were placed on her body which indicated that she was of high social status. Pieces of pottery and several other artifacts were buried with the three-year-old which also indicated that he belonged to a wealthy family. One of the men who were found was buried with pottery that date back between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago.
The ancients reshaped their skulls in order to demonstrate wealth and social status. It was in fact a quite common ritual in different tribal cultures from different parts of the world, such as Aboriginals, North American natives, and the Mayans. However, it is still uncertain where skull elongation originated from. “It is too early to tell whether intentional cranial modification first emerged in East Asia and spread elsewhere or originated independently in different places,” stated paleoanthropologist Qian Wang.
Cranial modification (or skull stretching) occurred for the longest period of time at the Houtaomuga site, more than any other archaeological site. There were three different types of skull stretching – flat, round, and conical.
Skull reshaping was conducted in early childhood when the cranial bones of an infant’s head were soft and the skull was compressed by the hands of an adult. First, the child’s head would be wrapped in a tight cloth. The cloth would stay on the infant’s head beginning when the child was a month old and remained there for around six months. In order to flatten the skull, the head would be placed between two boards.
The research was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology which can be read here.