The Case of the Strange Skulls

A collection of bizarre human skulls from around the world.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Ancient Mysteries, General Science

Skeptoid #144
March 10, 2009
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Is it an extraterrestrial alien? Is it an unknown subspecies of human? Is it a relic from a mysterious race of subterranean or Atlantean beings? Or, could there be some other, more natural explanation for the many strange misshapen skulls found throughout the world? Let's look at some of the most popular:

The Starchild Skull

Perhaps the most famous of the "strange skulls" is the so-called "Starchild Skull", the skull of a five-year-old child found alongside a normal adult in a cave in Mexico, carbon dated to about 900 years old. Although only the top half of the skull remains, its severe deformities are clear. The skull is exceptionally broad and bulbous, not unlike modern concept sketches of "gray aliens". For this reason, the skull's current owner, Ray Young and author Lloyd Pye promote the skull as alien, or possibly an alien-human hybrid.

Neurologist Steven Novella has pointed out the probable consensus among medical professionals who have seen pictures of the Starchild, that it is likely an unfortunate case of hydrocephaly. Hydrocephaly is a condition where too much fluid accumulates inside the skull of a young child, causing the skull (which is still pliable at that age) to expand. This condition is well established to produce precisely the type of deformity seen in the Starchild skull. Victims of hydrocephaly rarely live beyond the Starchild's young age. Of course it's not possible to make a conclusive diagnosis without a direct examination. Young and Pye list a handful of specialists who they say have viewed the skull or its X-rays, but none of them (so far as I could tell) concur with the speculation that the skull is alien.

The primary strike against them is the 2003 DNA analysis. The child had normal human DNA and was male, having both X and Y chromosomes, proving that it had a human female mother and a human male father. Young and Pye state that this is consistent with the alien-human hybrid theory, which it may be, who knows; no known alien DNA exists to use as a reference. But it is also consistent with a human child with a well documented and thoroughly understood illness.

The Peruvian Coneheads

Author Robert Connolly has collected and photographed a number of skulls from ancient Peru, skulls that are surprisingly elongated. In Peru, a practice called "skull binding" involved wrapping fabric or leather straps about a child's head, molding it as it grew into this strange oval shape. There's nothing mysterious or unknown about this; we have plenty of historical and archaeological data about this practice. But Connolly disagrees, stating that this explanation "has been rejected". Well, it has, by him; but not by the anthropologists who make Peru their business. The elongated skulls of Peru are certainly interesting, but their origin is well understood and no mystery exists outside of the delusions of those who insist on alien or supernatural explanations for just about anything.

Giant skulls

The next skulls I wanted to discuss were the strange giant skulls from Minnesota with double rows of teeth. But I quickly ran into a problem: For virtually the entire 19th century, people were reporting discoveries of skeletons with double teeth all over the United States. Double teeth sounds interesting. I found a number of repeated references that the Talmud states that some Biblical giants had double rows of teeth, but in an online searchable Talmud I found no such reference. It's also said that the Fomorians, an early Irish tribe, are known to have had double teeth. In fact, the Fomorians were a fictional race of ogres, and even so I found no mention of double teeth outside of web pages promoting strange skulls. Here are several of the double teeth stories:

Besides the extra teeth, all of these stories have one very important fact in common: A complete lack of evidence. No photographs, and certainly no skulls in museums or private collections, at least not that I could find any record of. If you found an extraordinary skull, wouldn't you keep it? Wouldn't you show it to some professors at the local college? At a minimum, wouldn't you sell such an amazing find to someone who would display it or preserve it? But in every one of these cases, no record of the skull exists at all. And although it seems every other thrust of a shovel used to turn one of these up, apparently not a single one has been found since 1892, despite far more extensive construction and excavation since then. Even if these were hoaxes, someone would have photographed it or sketched it or preserved it. For the double-toothed skulls, I've found no reason to move from the null hypothesis that no such skull has ever actually been found. I'd love to be proven wrong.

The stories are symptomatic of a late 19th century fad. Strange skeletons and petrified people were quite popular in the United States in the 19th century, and it wasn't just limited to skulls with double teeth. It seemed that just about everyone with a circus tent or a traveling show had some enigmatic human remains, which always conveniently managed to be lost or destroyed before they could be properly scrutinized. Mark Twain lampooned these stories on a number of occasions. He once wrote:

In the fall of 1862, in Nevada and California, the people got to running wild about extraordinary petrifactions and other natural marvels. One could scarcely pick up a paper without finding in it one or two glorified discoveries of this kind. The mania was becoming a little ridiculous. I was a brand-new local editor in Virginia City, and I felt called upon to destroy this growing evil... I chose to kill the petrifaction mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire. But maybe it was altogether too delicate, for nobody ever perceived the satire part of it at all. I put my scheme in the shape of the discovery of a remarkably petrified man.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

He then went on to describe the discovery of a petrified Indian making an obscene gesture. He also wrote a tale called A Ghost Story in which he is visited by the ghost of the Cardiff Giant, a 10-foot petrified man discovered in 1869 and proven to be a hoax. Twain explains to the ghost that he's been haunting P.T. Barnum's plaster copy of the Cardiff Giant instead of the original.

It's wise to understand the carnival-like atmosphere in which many of the 19th century freakshow skeletons are said to have been discovered, and the convenient lack of evidence. A few of the many stories that fit this model are:

Mound building was indeed common among early pre-Columbian cultures in North America, going back as far as 3,000 BCE. Thousands of such mounds have been discovered throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. Metal artifacts and human remains have been discovered, but so far nothing that has surprised archaeologists: No double teeth, no pygmies, no giants. But in the midst of such intriguing mounds, it's easy to see how farmers and fortune seekers might try to generate a little sensationalism with a wild story or two. The anecdotal evidence in the form of stories has great value to investigators looking to support the claims, but so far, these stories have led to a grand total of strange skulls of exactly zero. Always remember: No matter how much poor-quality evidence you have, it does not aggregate into a single piece of good-quality evidence. You can stack cowpies as high as you want; they won't turn into a bar of gold. When you hear lots of stories that are supported by dubious or nonexistent evidence, no matter how many there are, you have good reason to be skeptical.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Castriota-Scanderbeg, A., Dallapiccola, B. Abnormal Skeletal Phenotypes. Berlin, Germany: Springer, 2005. 3-100, 501-931.

Gerszten, P.C. "An Investigation into the Practice of Cranial Deformation Among the Pre-Columbian Peoples of Northern Chile." International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 27 May 2005, Volume 3, Issue 2: 87-98.

Hippocrates; translated by Adams, F. On Airs, Waters, and Places. Gloucester, UK: Dodo Press, 2009. 20.

Kirks, D. (Editor). Practical pediatric imaging: Diagnostic radiology of infants and children (3rd Edition). Philadelphia: Lippincott-Raven, 1998. 80-200.

Novella, S. "The Starchild Project." The New England Skeptical Society. The New England Skeptical Society, 1 Feb. 2006. Web. 14 Jan. 2010. <>

Smith, B. et. al. "An anatomical study of a duplication 6p based on two sibs." American Journal of Medical Genetics. 3 Jun. 2005, Volume 20, Issue 4: 649-663.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Case of the Strange Skulls." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 10 Mar 2009. Web. 3 Sep 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 107 comments

The key issue I understand on the Peru skulls is that the bone plate is single while human skuls have 2 plates, this is unrefutable. Also the volume of the skulls is reported to be 25% more, the skull binding does not add volume ?? How do you respond to these aspects ?

Stewart, Brisbane Australia
February 26, 2014 11:39pm

Interesting read. I was hoping for something more scientific to dispute the skulls. Seems the only problem here, is that they are only reports. No physical evidence to go off. So the reports cant be debunked, just dismissed. It seems tho that there are way to many 'reports' from around the world for it just to be hoaxes. Impossible for all the reports to be hoaxes or something of the kind. So clearly there must be some physical basis for at least some of the reports. They must of saw something, which may be misinterpreted, but still something. I was hoping to see how they are disputed, assuming the reports are accurate. You are familiar with the long held conspiracy theory that organizations like the Smithsonian have been covering up there giant skeletons. skulls? It is said they have been sent giant bones on multiple occasions, only for them to report they never arrived,or they are missing.

Anyway, thanks for the article. I had stumbled across a few things about giants lately. A "Forbidden History' episode or week or so ago. A lecture on mound builders i watched. And some other things in recent weeks So it was interesting to stumble across this, while not looking for it.

Jeff, Vancouver,Wa
March 24, 2014 12:05pm

The reason I did not post a "source" was. because you would immediately discount it (obviously without even reading it for if you did read it you would find all the raw data and proof that has been presented to this date) no, the "proof" that it is. an extraterrestrial is not 100% at this point but hydrocephali has been disproven as have the ooriginal d.n.a. results that say human.
you know what though, I'll bite, the site is duh, "the starchild" site or "Lloyd Pye " site. Please read these completely before bowing them off. Since, you "just want the whole truthful story"

Kelly, St louis, Missouri
April 27, 2014 12:18pm

Having entire double rows of teeth is certainly very different than usual, but it is still an actual medical oddity. I myself have "doubles" of my upper and lower canines...All of them are regular adult teeth (meaning no, they are not baby teeth that haven't fallen out). Luckily, the "extra" canines are still mostly contained in my gums and only the very tips of them are behind my regular ones. Certainly made my new dentist do a double take when viewing my x-rays though!

Just's not impossible.

Anastasia, Poughkeepsie, New York
May 24, 2014 12:32pm

I know for a fact that human beings with double rows of teeth exist, for I have a friend Dale Carter, whose unusual teeth I have seen with my own eyes. His story to me was that this had been caused by the fact that his mother had been taking Thalidamine while she was pregnant with him. He is now a famous mortician/pathologist, and lives in Galveston, Texas.

martymanfred, dallas, texas
June 28, 2014 5:40pm

John Smith, Tucson, AZ
July 19, 2014 4:39pm

John Smith, Tucson, AZ
July 19, 2014 4:51pm

If you happened to be legally trained, you would have some appreciation for the rule of law that dictates most of Western Society's legal systems regarding "Preponderance of the Evidence", (POE) where weight is given to accumulation and correlation of factual information. Almost every legal test (except capital murder) is adjucated on a POE basis.

Every anomaly fought over by Science - Religion (the two main antagonists in every argument regarding any anomaly) could be fact based (POE) proven beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly if both sides would stop shouting about "disproving" the other side's viewpoint. Then just the accumulated facts could and should prove as conclusive as any legal test. The collective group of anomalies that immediately come to mind, besides the above Elongated Skulls, are:

Ancient (Highly Advanced) Civilizations
Aerial Phenomenon including unknown aerial craft
Giants and other hominin - hominds including so called "aliens"
Underwater cities - harbors - canals - roads
Late Pleistocene - Early to mid Holocene Dinosaurs
Cataclysmic - Catastrophic Earth - Wandering Poles
DNA Code

Skeptic sites like this one have useful value in reigning in the tinfoil hat crowd that throw up the most amazingly silly theories on the flimsiest of evidence. The problem is they often do not use any scientific rigor in selecting particular anomalies like "Elongated and so-called 'Starchild' skulls that have been argued from a rigorous scientific standpoint.


Floathouse, Orlando, FL
September 7, 2014 11:54am

Concerning John's comments on preponderance of evidence. Nineteenth century newspaper reports about strange skulls without further documentation or any physical evidence would probably best be considered hearsay evidence. Yes, it is a fact that something was printed. But no, printing about such skulls does not prove that such skulls existed, given the absence of further documentation. They may have existed; they may not. The issue is not their existence; the issue here is the validity of the evidence for their existence.
The preponderance of evidence argument works only with facts and not hearsay. According to the Daubert standard, scientific knowledge is admissible only if it is a product of the scientific methodology derived from the scientific method.
Most of John's substantiating "evidence" (ancient advanced civilizations, abrupt polar wandering, etc.) are not consistent with the preponderance of well-documented physical evidence in their respective fields. Little of the evidence for these phenomena would probably meet the Daubert standard if judged in a court of law. Supporting one extraordinary contention (alien skulls) with other unsubstantiated contentions seems to me to be on somewhat shaky ground. The obvious thing to do is to strengthen the data directly. Either collect new physical data (find skulls with alien DNA) or compile reliable primary scientific data from refereed journals instead of repeating hearsay from a hundred years ago.

Fat Al, Richardson, TX
September 21, 2014 12:54pm

For all of those arguing "alien" skulls I have just one thing to say:

Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man

(Yes, it is JOSEPH not John. See "Dead Men Do Tell Tales" by forensic anthropologist William Maples.)

Maid in Missouri, Gainesville Fl
December 9, 2014 12:55pm

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