Ariets Research Blog

February 22, 2015

The Nordic Skull and the Nordic Race, a Retrospect by K.E.Schreiner

Filed under: -Typology, Physical anthropology — Ariets @ 1:20 pm

The designations “Nordic skull” and “Nordic race” were first employed and carefully described by Fürst in his publications from 1910 and 1912. In the latter he writes (p. 60): “Diesen nordischen dolichocephalen Schädeltypus, den ich oben mehrmals geschildert habe, kännen wir in denselben Formen in Schweden von der megalithischen Steinzeit über die Bronze- bis in die Eisenzeit verfolgen und finden auch, dass er bis in die neuste Zeit als typischer Schädel fur unsere nordischen Länder und speziell für Schweden sich bewährt hat, wenn auch die Dolichocephalie im Norden wie auch in den deutschen Ländern mit Rückgang seiner relativen Anzahl bedroht ist. Wenn aber der Rassentypus mit Dolichocephalie, hoher Korpergrösse, blauen Augen und hellen Haaren in der hochsten Prozentzahl in der Welt gewiss auf der skandinavischen Halbinsel existiert und wenn diese Dolichocephalen überhaupt die oben erwähnte Schädelform besitzen, so halte ich es fur richtig, dass wir diese Schädelform die nordische Schädelform und die Rasse, die diese repräsentieren die nordische Rasse nennen.”

These designations of Fürst are similar to several which have been used earlier. Thus the Norwegian geologist and archaeologist A. M. Hansen in his book “Oldtidens nordmænd” (Ancient Norwegians) in 1909 called the type which is predominant in the Scandinavian countries “the tall Nordic long-skulled race”, and Fürst (1905) had previously used the term “the Northern-Germanic skull” himself after the Norwegian anthropologist C. F. Larsen (1901).

The basis of the term “Nordic race” is in part its geographical association with the north, in part its inclusion of the three characteristics dolichocephaly, tall stature and fair complexion.
If we disregard the two latter characters and ask what traits in addition to dolichocrany typify the Nordic skull, the study of older and more recent literature shows that on this point there is no absolutely agreement between the various authors.

Fürst gives the following description: “Es ist dieser schöne, lange nordische Schädeltypus mit wohlentwickelten Glabella und Arcus superciliares, zuerst steil so langsam steigender Stirnprofillinie und hervortretendem Tuber occipitale, Langgesicht und rektangulären Augenhöhlen, hoher, schmaler Nase, Orthognatismus, kräftigen Kinn und einer typischen Norma verticalis, wo die Ellipse vorn durch die breite Stirn abgeflacht und hinten durch das Tuber occipitale zugespizt wird” (pp.55-56). The cranial index for the type usually lies under 75, but may also fall within the lower grades of mesocrany, it is associated with low values of the height-length index.

Our knowledge of the skull form which Fürst characterizes in this manner in 1912 dates back to the years 1838-43 when the famous Swedish zoologist and archaeologist Sven Nilsson’s well-known work “Skandinaviska Nordens Urinvånare” was published. Already in an earlier publication from 1835 Nilsson had stated that it should be easy to determine the race to which the people who had used implements of stone and animal bones in Sweden had belonged if one examined the skeletons, and especially the skulls which are found in the old graves together with implements. This is what Nilsson tried to do in the above-mentioned work on the aboriginals of Sweden, the second chapter of which bears the title “A Comparison Between the Skulls Found in Our Prehistoric Graves and Those of Now Living Races”. As a basis for his comparison he first characterizes the skull form of the present Swedish population, illustrated in three figures.

It is of particular interest that Nilsson, in characterizing the skulls which are long oval from above, employs the relationship between the breadth and length and also the relationship between the auricular height and the length. The maximum length is related to the maximum parietal breadth as 4 to 3 or as 9 to 7, the auricular height comprises two-thirds of the length. As individual, more chance differences between skulls of this type Nilsson mentions the variable development of the arcus superciliares, the depression above the bridge of the nose, the variations in the length, curvature and prominence of the nasal bone, the curvature and prominence as well as the breadth of the nasal aperture.

The description given by Sven Nilsson of the skull form of the Swedish population is of unusual interest, not only because it is the first and in a concise manner emphasizes a number of the most striking peculiarities of this skull form, but especially because, by using the relation between the skull’s maximum breadth or auricular height and its maximum length to characterize the type, it may be said to form the groundwork for later skull measurements and index calculations, a method which was soon to attain further development in the works of Nilsson’s compatriot and pupil Anders Retzius.

On the suggestion of Nilsson, Retzius made a comparative investigation of the crania of various races in order to elucidate further the questions which Nilsson had sought to answer concerning the early inhabitants of Sweden. The first results of these investigations were presented by Retzius at a meeting of natural scientists in Stockholm in 1842 in his later so famous lecture “Om formen av Nordboernes cranier” (On the Shape of the Skulls of the Scandinavian North), published in the records of the meeting. The most important features of the description here given by Retzius of the Swedish skulls are the following: The form of the skull as seen from above is oval. The maximum length is about one-fourth larger than the greatest breadth so that the length is related to the breadth as 1000: 773 or about 9: 7. On the average the maximum length is 190 mm, the maximum breadth 147 mm, the horizontal circumference through the glabella 540 mm and the vertical height 135 mm. The transverse frontal arc of most of the skulls is somewhat straight, the arcus superciliares are usually well developed. Posterior to the maximum breadth, which usually falls below and somewhat in front of the tubera parietalia, the skull grows narrower toward the occiput ending in a prominent, rounded tuper occipitale. In the norma lateralis this appears as a ledge which is limited above by a depression over the point of the lambda suture, which is one of the significant traits of skulls of this type. The surface on which the cerebellum rests is almost horizontal, lies in the bottom of the skull and is slightly convex. The tuber occipitale is located rather far back of the edge of this surface. The limit for the attachment of the musculi cervicis lies below and in front of the very prominent tuber occipitale. The angle between the occipital and the nuchal planes is almost a right angle and in adult men forms a marked protuberantia occipitalis externa. The foramen magnum has an oval form with a mean length of 36 and a mean breadth of 29 mm. The face extends slightly beyond the brain-case. In some skulls the zygomatic arches extend almost directly backward and do not bend sideward until near the insertion on the temporal bones, in others they form an almost regular arc with its maximum convexity in the center. The maximum bizygomatic breadth is usually 130-135 mm. The shape of the orbitae varies considerably; in some of the skulls it forms an outward and downward slanting rhombus with rounded corners, in others the form is oval to cicular. The face is high, the distance between the nasion and the incisors’ alveolar margin in men is on the average 77 mm; the fossa malaris in most of the skulls is rather deep. The mandible is high and powerfully built, the chin prominent.

Retzius found the same characteristic form as in the modern Swedes in a number of crania from older periods, both from the Medieval and Iron Ages, and thus he concludes that this skull form is an inheritance from ancient Swedes.
In his lecture at the meeting of natural scientists in Kristiania in 1844 “On the Shape of the Skull in Different Peoples” Retzius gives an account of his continued investigations of the skull form of the peoples of Europe and he points out that in Norwegians, Danes, Dutchmen, Belgians, Germans, Englishmen, Scots and Irishmen he has found the same form as in the Swedes. In a number of publications in subsequent years Retzius writes further on this subject.

One of the most significant contributions to the further investigation of the characteristics and distribution of the Germanic skull form is Alexander Ecker’s well-known work “Crania Germaniae meridionalis occidentalis” from 1865. It contains descriptions with numerous measurements and illustrations of a total of 83 more or less complete skulls from old graves in Baden, Würtemberg, Bavaria, Hessen and Nassau. The material is derived partly from Frankish and Allemanic “Reihengräber” from the 5th-8th centuries in South Germany, partly from large round burial mounds “Hügelgräber” from the time of the Roman rule in Germania.

With his interpretation of the Reihengräber type as the characteristic skull form of the Germanic peoples of the Merovingian Era in Germany, Ecker’s work has had a considerable influence on all later investigations of Germanic graves both in Germany and neighbouring countries. Ecker’s description of the type agrees in all main points with that previously given of the Swedish skulls by A. Retzius. Ecker emphasizes also that he has made a comparison between the skulls from the South German graves and modern Swedish skulls, and that the comparison shows complete agreement between these and the Reihengräber form. Hence he comes to the conclusion that the modern Swedes and the old Franks and Allemanns represent branches of the same race, an interpretation which agrees with that of Retzius in 1856 where he states that the Franks, Burgundians and Goths together with the Scandinavian peoples belonged to the Germanic dolichocephalic orthognathous race.

In several respects Retzius’ description of the Germanic skull type is more detailed than Ecker’s, however in other respects the latter makes valuable contributions to the characterization of the type. This is true both of his excellent description of the forehead and occipital form and especially his emphasis of the characteristic pentagonal form of the skull in the norma occipitalis. Concerning the form of the facial skull in the Reihengräber type, Ecker states only that the face is narrow.

Ecker’s investigations and the treatise by Rütimeyer and His, “Crania Helvetica”, published the year before the appearance of “Crania Germanica”, led to the same significant result that while the present population of South Germany and Switzerland is brachycephalic, and long skulls occur within this population only as rare exceptions, the grave finds from the Roman Iron Age to the Merovingian Era reveal contrasting craniological data, as brachycrany at that time was just as exceptional as dolichocrany is now. Compared with Retzius’ above mentioned demonstration that the skull form of Sweden’s population has remained unaltered for the last 1000 years, the results of Rütimeyer, His and Ecker for Middle Europe were extremely surprising. They gave rise to a long series of investigations of skeletal remains from prehistoric and later times both in Germany and neighbouring countries. It is beyond the scope of the present work to discuss the numerous publications which deal with the various collections of crania from Germanic graves, all the more so as this literature is treated in detail both in one of the present author’s earlier publications (1927) and by a number of other authors, most recently by Hug (1940). The most important result of these investigations is that the skull form which is common in these Germanic graves as regards the form of the braincase shows good agreement with that which Retzius found characteristic for the cranium of the peoples of the north and Ecker for the Reihengräber type, but as regards the form of the face the skulls exhibit extreme differences. In some cases the face is big and narrow, in others low and broad, the nose may vary from narrow to broad, the orbitae from low to high and may exhibit the most variable forms, and the face may vary from orthognathous to prognathous. It is thus obvious that the Reihengräber peoples do not represent a homogeneity. If the Reihengräber skull is regarded as the prototype of the Nordic skull it must be said that Fürsts`s characterization of its facial form (cf. above) does not hold generally but is characteristic only for a particular variant within the type.

Most of the skull material which is dealt with in the present work is derived from those periods of the Iron Age which are designated as the Migration, the Merovingian and the Viking Periods. The investigation has shown that the skull form which is predominant in this material is the Nordic or Reihengräber type, the northern people’s skull form of Nilsson and A. Retzius, and that our material from this period shows good agreement in structure both with the contemporary Danish, Swedish, British and German skull forms and with the Medieval skulls from Oslo. The explanation of the variations exhibited by this skull form, especially in structure of the face, is to be sought for in the fact that the so-called Nordic race, which in its skeletal structure is characterized especially by its skull form and tall stature, must be assumed to have been developed through the mixture of peoples which took place in Europe during the Neolithic when one wave after the other of peoples from the eastern Mediterranean lands and the region around the Caspian Sea wandered northward into a region that was sparsely populated by the men of the Upper Palaeolithic, and came to the Scandinavian Peninsula from Middle Europe by various routes.

The various skull forms from the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe which bear names after the site at which they were found, such as Cro-Magnon, Brünn, Chancelade, Solutré, Grimaldi and Combe-Capelle, have been identified with just as many races by a number of earlier authors, and the special relation of the Nordic race to one or the other of these has been postulated. Such a classification of the Upper Palaeolithic forms into different races rests for the present on much too slight a basis as pointed out by Morant and Matiegka, and temporarily it is probably safer, like Morant, to regard them as local variations within a population which is rather less variable than many modern European series. Among the skulls of the Nordic type forms can be found which show agreement with the Cro-Magnon as well as the Brünn and Combe-Capelle skulls although none of these forms can be said to represent the dominant element.

There is no evidence to contradict the possibility that during the long period of the Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic a transformation of certain skull forms of Upper Palaeolithic type in the direction of the Nordic type may have taken place, in that the skulls have got a more delicate structure and a higher and narrower face. The Danish cranial finds from the Maglemose and Ertebølle Periods in recent years indicate that such a transformation really has taken place in certain regions. However a large number of our skulls of Nordic type exhibit characters which definitely point back to similar traits in the Neolithic invaders, chiefly the Bandpattern and various Battle-axe peoples.

In the present skull material from the Scandinavian countries, the development of the Nordic type can be followed directly. In addition to Neolithic skulls, which in their entire structure hardly differ from Upper Palaeolithic forms and which probably belonged to the original population, there are skulls which, with their small absolute measurements and delicate structure, differ markedly from the former, and which are naturally interpreted as belonging to Neolithic invaders of Mediterranean origin. And finally, among these, there are a number of skulls which have every right to be designated as Nordic, and in which we sometimes find dominating traits from the former, sometimes from the latter.

Most of the known skulls from the Upper Palaeolithic are dolichocranial, and Morant has calculated their mean cranial index to 72.6 for males and 75.3 for females. The Band-pattern skulls are also on the average dolicho-mesocranial, while the skulls of the Battle-axe peoples are more pronounced dolichocranial. While the face in the Upper Palaeolithic men is usually low and broad, in the Neolithic invaders it is higher and medium broad to narrow. That the populations which are derived from a mixture of these elements for the most part have a long narrow brain-case and highly variable facial forms is just what we could have expected, similarly that there will be considerable variation in the entire skull form according to which of the above-mentioned elements dominates quantitatively in the mixture.

In addition to the mainly dolichocranial invaders of Scandinavia, a mainly brachycranial element is added in the later part of the Neolithic, the Bell Beaker people, who, even though they must be assumed to have been fewer in number than the former, have probably contributed to an exceeding degree in complicating the anthropological situation in the north. In the opinion of the present author they may have given rise to the so-called Borreby type by admixture with the Upper Palaeolithic forms, and to various mesocranial forms by admixture with the other invaders. The border between these and the Nordic skull is poorly defined, and it is hardly possible to have any well-founded opinion as to whether a mesocranial index can be ascribed to brachycranial admixture or whether it should be interpreted as a variation within the dolichocranial group. In any case it would be rash to conclude that every mesocranial index is due to Bell Beaker admixture, as both the Battle-axe peoples and especially the Band-pattern peoples in addition to a majority of dolichocranial forms also include mesocranial forms.

If we follow the ordinary definition of “Nordic race” and consider its three most important characters as a long, narrow skull, high stature and blonde complexion, we can say that at the end of the Neolithic a large part of the population exhibited the two first traits. However, skeletal investigations afford no information as to pigmentation. The first reliable find of a combination of skeletal structure of the Nordic type with blonde hair is from the oak coffin graves from Denmark’s Early Bronze Age.

Where shall we search for the origin of this blonde complexion? We know nothing of the pigmentation of the Upper Palaeolithic men. They are assumed by most authors to have been dark. According to their undoubted Mediterranean origin it is logical to assume that the Band-pattern peoples and the Megalithic peoples of Western Europe were characterized by dark hair and brown eyes. This is also suggested by the present pigmentation of the dolichocephalics in large parts of the Megalithic regions on the Atlantic coasts. Our skull finds from Trøndelag’s Neolithic or Early Bronze Age compared with the pigmentation of the present population also seem to indicate the correctness of this assumption. It thus seems most logical to assume that the blonde complexion was associated with the Battle-axe peoples. That the blonde complexion is a result of a depigmentation due to the climatic conditions of the north seems improbable. If cold, snow, the long, dark winter, the light summer and the sea air either alone or in combination had a depigmenting effect, the strong pigmentation of the Lapps and the Eskimos would be difficult to understand.

When we, in the preceding discussion of the various skeletal finds, have designated a skull as “Nordic”, we only mean that the form of the brain-case falls within the range of the Reihengräber type. It may exhibit more or less pronounced Upper Palaeolithic traits, it may be more or less closely related to the Bandpattern or the Battle-axe type. Whether the people to whom the skulls belonged were of “Nordic race” cannot be determined, as their pigmentation is not known. Reversely if we take our point of departure in the present population of Norway, we find many individuals with Nordic skull form and high stature. Some of them have blonde hair and blue eyes, it is these who are called “pure Nordic” or “100 % Nordic”. But others have dark hair and blue eyes or brown hair and pigmented eyes. They are “only partly Nordic”. And in addition there are many who are mesocephalic or even brachycephalic. If they are blonde they may be considered as a variation of the “Nordic race”, if they are dark they are “un-Nordic”. If we regard this classification in the light of the history it seems obvious that the term “Nordic race” designates only a particular phaenotype within the populations which have developed in the north during and after the Neolithic. Since this type in our time has its greatest concentrated distribution in the central parts of the Scandinavian Peninsula, it is logical to assume that this is due to the fact that the Neolithic invaders in these areas belonged mostly to the eastern Battle-axe peoples who were probably closest to the Nordic type of all the Neolithic peoples.

In addition to the blonde dolichocephalics, there is in certain parts of our country as well as in the other Scandinavian countries, a largely blonde brachycephalic population whose skull form shows relation to the Borreby type. If our assumption that the latter represent the product of admixture between Upper Palaeolithic and Bell Beaker forms, possibly with more or less admixture of other forms, is correct, it seems logical to assume that the blonde complexion also has another source than that mentioned above. What this source may have been can at present only be guessed at. It is possible that the Bell Beaker peoples included a considerable number of blonde elements, nor it is impossible that the same was true of the descendents of the Upper Palaeolithic men.

Our comparison between the skulls from the Iron Age and from the Medieval Age of Oslo has shown that these consist chiefly of the same types. When the latter on the average have a somewhat shorter length and greater breadth, this may of course be due to greater mobility of the population in the Middle Age which has led to an admixture of the population of the South-Eastern parts with peoples from other parts of the country, where the skull forms was of a somewhat different type than the mean type of the Iron Age, or that this parts of the country even from ancient times differed somewhat from the rest, but the main cause probably lies in a tendency toward increase of the breadth of the skull at the cost of its length similar to that encountered as an ordinary phenomenon in other parts of Europe also.

A question which is barely touched upon in the present work is the occurrence of brachycranial forms in the north and their possible relations. We have noticed the similarity between the Danish brachycranials of Nielsen’s Orrouy-Furfooz type and the Bell Beaker skulls, and in this similarity we believe there is evidence for the assumption of a connection between the Bell Beaker peoples’ appearance in the north and the occurrence of brachycrany. At the same time it is pointed out that brachycranial forms, if the dating of the Kassemose find to the Mesolithic is tenable, have already occurred in Denmark before the Neolithic immigrations at a time when, from the rest of Europe, we only know brachycranial forms from the Ofnet cave in Bavaria. However with those suggested possibilities for the relations of the Scandinavian brachycranials the question is far from solved. In this connection it is sufficient to point out that judging by the investigations which have been made of the skull forms in East Prussia and the Baltic in the Neolithic, it is an obvious possibility that Southern Sweden with its contact with these countries across the Baltic Sea may have acquired considerable brachycephalic elements, and that this contact may also be one of the causes of the combination of brachycephaly and blonde complexion in a large portion of the population of the north. A primary prerequisite of a profitable discussion of these questions is the investigation of an extensive skull material from prehistoric as well as modern times, both from the Scandinavian countries and their neighbours to the south and east, supported by investigations of the present population in regions where brachycephaly is common. It should be one of the aims of Nordic anthropology to contribute to the fulfillment of this program.

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