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Japan's Hirota people practiced cranial modification, and the reasons are unclear

The practices of ancient civilizations often remain shrouded in mystery. One such mystery is the age-old practice of intentional cranial modification, a custom that has puzzled scholars for generations. 

Now, new research is shedding light on this enigmatic tradition. The experts report that cranial modification was practiced by the Hirota people of southern Japan during the late Yayoi to Kofun periods, roughly spanning from the 3rd to the 7th century CE.

The study was a collaborative effort between biological anthropologists and archaeologists from Kyushu University and the University of Montana. 

Cranial modification 

Their findings, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, reveal that the Hirota people, inhabitants of the Tanegashima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, were practitioners of cranial modification. This act involves the pressing or binding of a person’s head during their formative years, resulting in a permanent deformation of the skull

This practice, which predates written records, is believed to have been a potent symbol, denoting group affiliations or representing an individual’s social rank.

Burial site of the Hirota people

“One location in Japan that has long been associated with cranial deformation is the Hirota site on the Japanese island of Tanegashima, in Kagoshima Prefecture. This is a large-scale burial site of the Hirota people who lived there during the end of the Yayoi Period, around the 3rd century CE, to the Kofun Period, between the 5th and 7th century CE,” explained Noriko Seguchi, who led the study.

“This site was excavated from 1957 to 1959 and again from 2005 to 2006. From the initial excavation, we found remains with cranial deformations characterized by a short head and a flattened back of the skull, specifically the occipital bone and posterior parts of the parietal bones.”

Focus of the study

The riddle, however, was in determining whether this alteration was a deliberate act or simply an unintended consequence of other behaviors. 

To investigate, the research team combined traditional and state-of-the-art methods. They used 2D imaging to chart the skulls’ outlines and 3D scanning for surface details. 

The data was then juxtaposed against findings from other Japanese archaeological sites, such as those of the Doigahama Yayoi people in Western Yamaguchi and the Kyushu Island Jomon people, who preceded the Yayoi as hunter-gatherers.

What the researchers discovered 

“Our results revealed distinct cranial morphology and significant statistical variability between the Hirota individuals with the Kyushu Island Jomon and Doigahama Yayoi samples,” said Seguchi. 

“The presence of a flattened back of the skull characterized by changes in the occipital bone, along with depressions in parts of the skull that connects the bones together, specifically the sagittal and lambdoidal sutures, strongly suggested intentional cranial modification.”

Unclear motives

The exact motivations behind such a practice remain unclear. The team theorizes that for the Hirota people, this act might have been a symbolic representation of group identity. 

Furthermore, it could have played a role in establishing trade networks, particularly for shellfish, as evidenced by archaeological finds at the site.

“Our findings significantly contribute to our understanding of the practice of intentional cranial modification in ancient societies,” said Seguchi. “We hope that further investigations in the region will offer additional insights into the social and cultural significance of this practice in East Asia and the world.”

More about cranial modification 

Cranial modification, also known as cranial deformation or head flattening, is the practice of shaping the skull by applying consistent force over a prolonged period. 

This is usually achieved by binding or molding the heads of babies and young children, whose skulls are still soft and malleable. 

Historical context

Cranial modification is a practice that dates back thousands of years and has been found in diverse cultures around the world. From the ancient Egyptians and Maya to certain tribes in Africa and the Pacific Islands, various civilizations have practiced skull shaping.


There are generally two methods of cranial modification:

Flat shaping

This involves the use of boards or pads to flatten the front, back, or sides of the skull. The head is bound tightly against a flat surface to achieve the desired shape.

Conical shaping

This technique requires the head to be wrapped tightly in cloth or bound with ropes to produce a more rounded, conical appearance.


The reasons behind cranial modification differ among cultures, but common motivations include:

  • Social status: A particular skull shape might denote nobility or a higher social class.
  • Cultural identity: The shaping of the skull could signal group affiliation or tribal identity.
  • Aesthetics: In some societies, altered skull shapes were considered more beautiful or desirable.

Health implications

Though cranial modification permanently alters the shape of the skull, there’s generally no evidence to suggest that it causes significant health problems. 

The brain is highly adaptable, particularly in young children, and appears able to accommodate the altered skull shape. However, it must be noted that the process can be painful, and if done incorrectly, may lead to complications.


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