Paleoneurosurgical aspects of Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformations

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Paleoneurosurgery represents a comparatively new developing direction of neurosurgery dealing with archaeological skull and spine finds and studying their neurosurgical aspects. Artificial skull deformation, as a bone artifact, naturally has been one of the main paleoneurosurgical research topics. Traditionally, the relevant neurosurgical literature has analyzed in detail the intentional skull deformations in South America's tribes. However, little is known about the artificial skull deformations of the Proto-Bulgarians, and what information exists is mostly due to anthropological studies. The Proto-Bulgarians originated from Central Asia, and distributed their skull deformation ritual on the Balkan Peninsula by their migration and domination. Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformation was an erect or oblique form of the anular type, and was achieved by 1 or 2 pressure bandages that were tightened around a newborn's head for a sufficiently long period. The intentional skull deformation in Proto-Bulgarians was not associated with neurological deficits and/or mental retardation. No indirect signs of chronic elevated intracranial pressure were found on the 3D CT reconstruction of the artificially deformed skulls.

Abbreviation used in this paper: ICP = intracranial pressure.

Abstract

Paleoneurosurgery represents a comparatively new developing direction of neurosurgery dealing with archaeological skull and spine finds and studying their neurosurgical aspects. Artificial skull deformation, as a bone artifact, naturally has been one of the main paleoneurosurgical research topics. Traditionally, the relevant neurosurgical literature has analyzed in detail the intentional skull deformations in South America's tribes. However, little is known about the artificial skull deformations of the Proto-Bulgarians, and what information exists is mostly due to anthropological studies. The Proto-Bulgarians originated from Central Asia, and distributed their skull deformation ritual on the Balkan Peninsula by their migration and domination. Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformation was an erect or oblique form of the anular type, and was achieved by 1 or 2 pressure bandages that were tightened around a newborn's head for a sufficiently long period. The intentional skull deformation in Proto-Bulgarians was not associated with neurological deficits and/or mental retardation. No indirect signs of chronic elevated intracranial pressure were found on the 3D CT reconstruction of the artificially deformed skulls.

The eternal striving of humans to be discernible from the others in the crowd has provoked the development of many different techniques for changing their bodies. Throughout the history of humankind, humans have constantly invented new methods to change their external appearance. Some of the methods, such as body painting, make-up and hairdressing, produce temporary effects. Other, permanent examples of body modification include tattooing, circumcision, clitoridectomy, foot binding, uvulectomy, body piercing, intentional scarring, and most recently plastic surgery.7 Some of the most extreme forms of body modification are those that alter not only the humans' soft tissues, but also their skeletons. These include dental mutilation, trephination, and artificial cranial deformation. The historical geographical distribution of body modification and in particular of intentional skull deformation is ubiquitous; it occurs in all continents of the world16 and is a part of many cultures, including that of Proto-Bulgarians3–5,10,11,13 (Fig. 1). All dates in this paper are from the Common Era.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Map of the world showing historical geographical distribution of artificial skull deformations.

Who Were the Proto-Bulgarians?

The modern Bulgarians are descended from 3 ancestral groups: Slavs, Thracians, and Proto-Bulgarians. In the postulated “homeland” region (present-day Ukraine), Slavs had had contacts with Sarmatians and Goths. After their subsequent spread on the Balkans, in the early 6th century, they had begun assimilating non-Slavic, paleo-Balkan peoples, such as Thracians and Greeks. Having lost their indigenous culture due to persistent Hellenization and the Roman conquest, everything that had remained from the Thracians had been completely absorbed into the Slavic tribes.

Traditionally, historians associated the Proto-Bulgarians with the Huns, who had migrated from Central Asia. However, the evidence for this has not been definitive, and the debates have continued up to the present. Genetic and anthropological researchers have shown that the large steppe confederations of history had not been ethnically homogeneous, but rather had been unions of multiple ethnicities.3 In the first third of the 6th century, the Proto-Bulgarians, originally from Central Asia, had formed an independent state that had become known as Great Bulgaria. Its territory had extended from the Donets River to the north, the Black Sea and the Azov Sea to the south, the lower course of the Danube to the west, and the Kuban River to the east. Khazars had subjugated Great Bulgaria in the second half of the 7th century. Proto-Bulgarians had migrated to the region known as Ongal and conquered Moesia and Scythia Minor from the Byzantine Empire, expanding the new kingdom farther into the Balkan Peninsula. A peace treaty with Byzantium in 681 and the establishment of the Bulgarian capital of Pliska south of the Danube River had marked the beginning of the First Bulgarian Empire. Proto-Bulgarian invaders had mingled with the Slav tribes and had imposed their traditions and rituals, including artificial skull deformation.

Proto-Bulgarian Artificial Skull Deformations

In the territory of contemporary Bulgaria were found 56 cases of Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformations in 4 excavations, and 1 intentionally deformed Pecheneg skull. The finds were dated from the 4th to the 11th century.

An artificially deformed skull from the Late Antiquity period (4th–6th century), belonging to a man more than 60 years old, was excavated from a Christian necropolis in Kabile, in southeast Bulgaria5 (Fig. 2). Some morphological changes of the neurocranium, like a strongly flattened, elevated, and elongated frontal bone; shortened occipital bones; and a flattened lower part of the squama occipitalis with a smooth relief show that the deformation must have been caused by a combined circular bandage that had exerted pressure in the direction from front to back and from the upper to the lower part. The imprint of the bandage was notable on the fontal, parietal, and occipital bones. The bandage had caused shortening of the skull and had enlarged its height; an oblique form of the so-called anular type. In the crossing point of the sagittal and the coronal sutures a rare anatomical variation—os bregmaticum—was observed. The identified changes of the nasal bones most likely had been caused by an additional tightening bandage, which had flattening of the nose as its aim. According to the racial analysis, the skull had belonged to a member of the European race, with prevailing Proto-European racial features.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Maps showing geographical distribution of the Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformation in Bulgaria. The symbol ▴ designates excavations in Kabile, in southeast Bulgaria (4th–6th century; see Cholakov). Finds: 1 artificially deformed skull. The symbol ▾ designates excavations in the city of Varna, in the Black Sea region (5th–6th century; see Minkov and Boev). Finds: 1 artificially deformed skull. The symbol ▸ designates excavations in the village of Kyulevcha, in the Shumen region (8th–9th century; see Kondova et al.). Finds: 2 artificially deformed skulls. The symbol ◂ designates excavations near the city of Devnja, in the Black Sea region (end of the 9th century; see Kadanoff and Jordanov). Finds: 52 artificially deformed skulls. The symbol • designates excavations near Krivina village, in the Rousse region (11th century; see Boev and Minkov). Finds: 1 artificially deformed skull.

Another artificially deformed skull, dating back to the Late Antiquity period (4th–6th century), was excavated in the city of Varna, in the Black Sea region13 (Fig. 2). The skull had belonged to a 25- to 30-year-old woman, and had an erect form of the anular type cranial deformation. It had been encircled by a 4-cm-wide bandage, which had been tied around the forehead, the parietal bones, and the squama occipitalis. Due to the circular pressure, the head had grown upward and had aquired an approximately cone-shaped form, with an apparent depression in the middle of the squama frontalis and a flattened squama occipitalis. Based on racial analysis, the skull could be assigned to the European race, with slight Mongoloid traces.

Two skulls with artificial deformation of the anular type were examined (of a total of 23 skeletons), from the Early Medieval non-Christian necropolis with 2 burial sites in the village of Kyulevcha, Shumen region (8th–9th century)11 (Fig. 2).

The first skull had belonged to a 22- to 25-year-old woman. The traces from the tightening bandages (with a width of approximately 4.5–5 cm), were clearly detected immediately above the frontal eminences. Over the parietal bones and the squama occipitalis, however, the imprint of the pressure bandages could be noted, although this was slightly indistinct. Most likely, the artificial skull deformation, which is an oblique form of the anular type, had been produced by combined circular bandages with frontooccipital and parietooccipital pressure directions.

The second skull had belonged to a 40- to 45-year-old man. Traces from the tightening bandages (with a width of approximately 5 cm), were found on the squama frontalis, on the parietal bones over the lambda, and on the upper part of the squama occipitalis. These signs indicated that the deformation had been caused by circular pressure with upward-downward and forward-backward directions, resulting in the so-called erect form of the anular type skull deformation. In the region of the squama occipitalis, pronounced sutura mendosa, which is a rare anatomical variation, was observed, and also noted was a well-defined interparietal bone (a large wormian bone at the lambda craniometric point, often referred to as an Inca bone [os incae], due to the relatively high frequency of occurrence in Peruvian mummies).18

According to the typological racial analysis of the skulls, the female one was classified as a contact racial type—gracile Mediterranean—with strongly defined Mongoloid features. The male one was identified as an Iranian variant of the Northern race, with slight Mongoloid traces. Those data have connected the studied population with both the supposed Turkic and the Alanian origin of the Proto-Bulgarians.

In 1976, Kadanoff and Jordanov10 reported on a series of 18 skulls with pronounced asymmetry, which they selected from a total of 52 artificially deformed and accordingly restored skulls from all age groups (from toddlers to elderly adults; Figs. 3 and 4). The finds were excavated in a circular tomb near the city of Devnja (Fig. 2), dating back to the end of the 9th century. In each individual skull, the artificial deformation was verified by serial measurements of linear and arched distances between several craniometric points; namely the glabella, bregma, inion, lambda, sphenion, asterion, and porion. Precise quantitative analysis of the skull asymmetry was achieved in both the occipitoparietal and temporoclinoidal parts of the specimen (compensatory and persisting asymmetry). The authors demonstrated that the discrepancies among some of the size values established in individual skulls, and the skull asymmetry, recorded scopically with other measurements, are due to displacements of the craniometric points (sphenion, asterion, inion), produced by differences in the growth rate and size of bones. Within the artificially deformed skulls, the pressure bandages produced arrested development of the bones and depressions along their surfaces.

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Photographs and 3D CT scans of an artificially deformed Proto-Bulgarian skull from the circular tomb near the city of Devnja, dating back to the end of the 9th century (see Kadanoff and Jordanov). The artificially deformed skull had belonged to an adult woman, and displays an oblique form of anular intentional cranial deformation. The artificial cranial deformation had been a result of the tightening of 2 pressure bandages: one in front of and the other behind the coronal suture. A: Photographs of the skull: anterior, lateral (notice the imprints of the pressure bandages—arrows), posterior, and superior. B: Series of 3D CT scans of the skull: anterior, lateral (notice the imprints of the pressure bandages—arrows), posterior, superior, and inferior (notice the absence of bony signs of elevated ICP). C: Plastic head reconstruction made by Professor J. Jordanov (Institute of Experimental Morphology and Anthropology with Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences), anterior and lateral views.

Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.

Photographs and 3D CT scans of an artificially deformed Proto-Bulgarian skull from the circular tomb near the city of Devnja, dating back to the end of the 9th century (see Kadanoff and Jordanov). The artificially deformed skull had been shaped with an erect form of anular intentional cranial deformation, caused by the tightening of one pressure bandage that encircles the forehead and the occiput. A: Photographs of the skull: anterior, lateral (notice the imprints of the pressure bandage—arrows), superior, and posterior. B: Series of 3D CT scans of the skull: anterior, lateral (notice the imprints of the pressure bandage—arrows), superior, and inferior (notice the absence of bony signs of elevated ICP).

A unique find for our country, an artificially deformed Pecheneg skull was discovered at the excavations near Krivina village, Rousse region (Fig. 2), and dated back to the 11th century.4 The skull had been shaped with an oblique form of anular deformation, and belonged to a 40- to 45-year-old man. The imprints of the pressure bandage, with a width of approximately 4 cm, were evident in the middle of the forehead. Archeological finds played a crucial part in determining the ethnic origin of the skull, because anthropological data alone do not yield sufficient evidence to distinguish a Proto-Bulgarian from a Pecheneg skull.

Discussion

Definition, Classification, and Techniques of Artificial Skull Deformation

The skull deformations basically could be divided into artificial (also known as intentional or cultural) and unintentional types.15 The intentional type of skull deformation results from a ritual of artificial modification of the primary, natural head shape in newborns to a desired, unnatural form.1,2,6,7 Artificial head deformation is achieved by application of different techniques, including bandages, pads, boards, stones, or a combination of these to the neonate skull throughout the 1st year of life or longer.6 In contrast to desired cranial modifications, unintentional cranial deformation could be caused by numerous medical factors,8 some peculiarities of the habitual sleeping posture, and by nutritional factors.6

In the literature, artificially deformed skulls are classified in 2 general types: anular (also known as circumferential or circular) and tabular (or frontooccipital or anteroposterior).6,7,9 These 2 types can be subdivided into oblique (Fig. 3) and erect (Fig. 4) forms, which can be further subdivided into numerous subtypes.15,16

Anular skull deformation is achieved by constriction of the head with pressure bandages, resulting in a lengthened, conical cranial vault, with narrowed medial-lateral dimensions. Typical for the craniometric vault measurements are the decreased width and increased height.1,2,15,16

Tabular skull deformation, also known as a “flat-head” deformation or “artificial brachicephaly,” is characterized by anterior and posterior vault compression along the sagittal plane, resulted in flattening at the front and back and lateral expansion of the head. Typically, the cranial vault width increases, whereas the cranial vault height is variably affected.1,2,15,16

Artificial Skull Deformation in the Scientific Literature

The practice of artificial skull deformation traditionally has been an object mainly of anthropological,1–6,9–11,13–15 archaeological, and historical studies and publications. The problem was not investigated from a neurosurgical point of view until the past 2 decades, when the first so-called paleoneurosurgical papers were published in neurosurgical journals.7,12,16,17

Artificial Skull Deformation in the Neurosurgical Literature

The neurosurgical literature concerning artificial skull deformations is surprisingly scarce.7,12,15,16 Several papers initiated the development of a quite new direction of neurosurgery; paleoneurosurgery.

The term paleoneurosurgery (from the Greek word “paleon” [old] combined with “neurosurgery”) could be defined as a branch of neurosurgery dealing with the recovery and identification of human skull and spine remains from archaeological and anthropological contexts, their use for the nosological reconstruction of past populations (paleonosology), and the evolutionary history of diseases, with a bearing on the evolution of neurosurgery in general.

Artificial Skull Deformation as a Heritage of the Proto-Bulgarians

In Bulgaria, Gothic artificially deformed skulls were discovered in the necropolis of the Roman cities of Abritus (in the province of Moesia Inferior) and Augusta Traiana (in the province of Thrace) dating back to the era of the so-called Great Barbarian Incursion (3rd–5th century) in the Roman empire.11 The rite of artificial cranial deformation had not been practiced by Thracians and Slavs. The custom had been transferred to the Balkans by the Hun tribes and mainly by the Proto-Bulgarians. Consequently, artificial cranial deformation had become widely applied; the most numerous findings of intentionally deformed skulls in our lands were from the medieval period. The most recent artificially deformed skulls in Bulgaria were discovered in a necropolis from the 15th century, but as a remnant.

Why Did Proto-Bulgarians Perform Artificial Skull Deformation?

Currently, the reason Proto-Bulgarians had performed artificial skull deformations is a matter of speculation. Unfortunately, no historical records referring to the practice have been found. However, most Bulgarian anthropologists have accepted that in the beginning of the tradition, artificial skull deformation had emphasized the upper social status of the tribal leaders and their relatives (social belonging). Later, artificial skull deformation spread among the other members of the ethnic group and became a sign of ethnic belonging.3–5,11,13

Technique of Proto-Bulgarian Artificial Skull Deformation

The morphological changes of the neurocranium in the Proto-Bulgarian artificially deformed skulls had been caused by 1 or 2 circular bandages made from textiles, leather, or other soft materials, exerting pressure in the desired direction3–5,11,13 (Fig. 5). In the cases with 1 pressure bandage, the bandage had been positioned behind the coronal suture or had encircled the forehead and the occiput. In the cases with 2 bandages, the bandages had been fixed in front of and behind the coronal suture, crossing each other above the porus acusticus externus. The imprint of the tightening bandages frequently could be observed on the skulls. The Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformation in general is an anular (also known as circumferential or circular) type of skull deformation with oblique (Fig. 3) and erect (Fig. 4) forms.

Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.

Drawings illustrating the technique of Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformation (Institute of Experimental Morphology and Anthropology with Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences). Left: Technique performed with 2 pressure bandages, resulting in an oblique form of anular skull deformation (notice the imprints of the pressure bandages—arrows). Right: Technique performed with 1 pressure bandage, resulting in an erect form of anular skull deformation (notice the imprints of the pressure bandage—arrows).

Neurological Consequences of Proto-Bulgarian Artificial Skull Deformation

In the lands of contemporary Bulgaria were discovered Proto-Bulgarian artificially deformed skulls belonging to individuals from almost all age groups—from toddlers to elderly adults3–5,10,11,13—which indirectly means that the pressure bandages causing the artificial cranial deformation did not injure the underlying brain, at least not to a degree that can cause death. On the contrary, most of the intentionally deformed skulls had belonged to adult persons with long survival, which could be difficult in the presence of permanent neurological deficit and/or mental retardation. These facts correspond to the data in the literature.7,12,16,17

Evaluation of Proto-Bulgarian Artificially Deformed Skulls With 3D CT Scanning

Computed tomography represents an exceptionally valuable tool in paleoneurosurgery, improving the reconstruction of fragmented skull specimens and allowing the anatomical and morphological analysis of the inner structures (endocranium, paranasal sinuses, semicircular canals, teeth, diploë, and so on).17 The bony signs of chronic elevated ICP are well known and include diffuse beatencopper pattern, dorsum sellae erosion, suture diastasis, abnormalities of venous drainage that particularly affect the sigmoid–jugular sinus complex, and elevation of the bregma region. The existence of these signs of elevated ICP in the Proto-Bulgarian artificially deformed skull specimens was examined using 3D CT studies. The data obtained demonstrated the absence of signs of chronic elevated ICP (Figs. 3 and 4).

Conclusions

Artificial skull deformation logically represents one of the main research objects of the newly developing branch of neurosurgery—namely, paleoneurosurgery. That rite of intentional cranial deformation had been traditionally practiced by the Proto-Bulgarians. Their technique had included 1 or 2 pressure bandages, tightening around the newborn's head during the first 1–2 years of life. Typically, the resulting intentional cranial deformation had been an erect or oblique form of the anular type. The practice of artificial skull deformation in the Proto-Bulgarians had not caused neurological deficits and mental retardation. The 3D CT reconstruction of the artificially deformed skulls, which was used to evaluate the internal cranial surface, rejected the existence of indirect bony signs of elevated ICP.

Disclosure

The authors report no conflict of interest concerning the materials or methods used in this study or the findings specified in this paper.

Author contributions to the study and manuscript preparation include the following. Conception and design: Enchev. Acquisition of data: Enchev, Nedelkov, Atanassova-Timeva. Analysis and interpretation of data: Enchev, Nedelkov, Atanassova-Timeva. Critically revising the article: Atanassova-Timeva. Study supervision: Jordanov.

References

Article Information

Address correspondence to: Yavor Enchev, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Neurosurgery, Medical University-Sofia, University Hospital “Sv. Ivan Rilsky,” 15 Boulevard “Acad. Ivan Geshov,” 1431 Sofia, Bulgaria. email: dr.y.enchev@gmail.com.

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.

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Figures

  • View in gallery

    Map of the world showing historical geographical distribution of artificial skull deformations.

  • View in gallery

    Maps showing geographical distribution of the Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformation in Bulgaria. The symbol ▴ designates excavations in Kabile, in southeast Bulgaria (4th–6th century; see Cholakov). Finds: 1 artificially deformed skull. The symbol ▾ designates excavations in the city of Varna, in the Black Sea region (5th–6th century; see Minkov and Boev). Finds: 1 artificially deformed skull. The symbol ▸ designates excavations in the village of Kyulevcha, in the Shumen region (8th–9th century; see Kondova et al.). Finds: 2 artificially deformed skulls. The symbol ◂ designates excavations near the city of Devnja, in the Black Sea region (end of the 9th century; see Kadanoff and Jordanov). Finds: 52 artificially deformed skulls. The symbol • designates excavations near Krivina village, in the Rousse region (11th century; see Boev and Minkov). Finds: 1 artificially deformed skull.

  • View in gallery

    Photographs and 3D CT scans of an artificially deformed Proto-Bulgarian skull from the circular tomb near the city of Devnja, dating back to the end of the 9th century (see Kadanoff and Jordanov). The artificially deformed skull had belonged to an adult woman, and displays an oblique form of anular intentional cranial deformation. The artificial cranial deformation had been a result of the tightening of 2 pressure bandages: one in front of and the other behind the coronal suture. A: Photographs of the skull: anterior, lateral (notice the imprints of the pressure bandages—arrows), posterior, and superior. B: Series of 3D CT scans of the skull: anterior, lateral (notice the imprints of the pressure bandages—arrows), posterior, superior, and inferior (notice the absence of bony signs of elevated ICP). C: Plastic head reconstruction made by Professor J. Jordanov (Institute of Experimental Morphology and Anthropology with Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences), anterior and lateral views.

  • View in gallery

    Photographs and 3D CT scans of an artificially deformed Proto-Bulgarian skull from the circular tomb near the city of Devnja, dating back to the end of the 9th century (see Kadanoff and Jordanov). The artificially deformed skull had been shaped with an erect form of anular intentional cranial deformation, caused by the tightening of one pressure bandage that encircles the forehead and the occiput. A: Photographs of the skull: anterior, lateral (notice the imprints of the pressure bandage—arrows), superior, and posterior. B: Series of 3D CT scans of the skull: anterior, lateral (notice the imprints of the pressure bandage—arrows), superior, and inferior (notice the absence of bony signs of elevated ICP).

  • View in gallery

    Drawings illustrating the technique of Proto-Bulgarian artificial skull deformation (Institute of Experimental Morphology and Anthropology with Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences). Left: Technique performed with 2 pressure bandages, resulting in an oblique form of anular skull deformation (notice the imprints of the pressure bandages—arrows). Right: Technique performed with 1 pressure bandage, resulting in an erect form of anular skull deformation (notice the imprints of the pressure bandage—arrows).

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