Japan’s Hirota People Were Reshaping Infants’ Heads 1,500 Years Ago
A team of researchers from Japan and the United States have just published a study proving conclusively that Japan’s Hirota people were using cranial modification techniques to change the shapes of their children’s heads in the first millennium AD.
In common with other indigenous peoples living in different times and in different locations, the Hirota people, who resided on the Japanese island of Tanegashima from the third through the seventh centuries AD, took steps to intentionally flatten the backs of infant’s heads shortly after they were born. This practice could also be used to elongate the skull, creating a unique and exotic look that many ancient peoples apparently found attractive.
The reasons why so many diverse cultures were interested in cranial modification remains unknown. But there is no doubt that the Hirota people were among its advocates, as they introduced the practice to Japanese culture more than 1,500 years ago.
Did the Hirota Really Practice Cranial Modification? Analyzing the Evidence
Cranial modification is a type of intentional body alteration where the head of an infant is wrapped or bound tightly in cloth in order to flatten and/or lengthen the back of the skull. It’s also possible to change the shape of a newborn’s skull in this way by pressing it into a flat, hard surface for an extended period of time. This procedure must be done at a very early age, while the bones of the skull are soft and malleable enough to be reshaped.
An example of a modern-day culture that still practices cranial modification by binding the heads of their infants. (Public Domain)
In this new study, a group of biological anthropologists and archaeologists from Kyushu University and the University of Montana analyzed 19 flattened human skulls removed from a Hirota beachside cemetery found on the island of Tanegashima. Most of the hundreds of skulls found there over the years have been similarly misshapen, making it clear that genetic abnormalities were not the explanation for the phenomenon.
“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,” biological anthropologist and study leader Noriko Seguchi explained in a Kyushu University press release about his team’s research. "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."
These changes in skull shape strongly suggested cranial modification techniques had been used by the Hirota. But archaeologists and anthropologists who studied the remains couldn’t be 100-percent sure the changes had been made intentionally. Some researchers suggested the alterations in skull shape could have been a side effect of some other type or birth ritual, medical treatment, or cultural or religious practice.
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Human remains found in the Hirota cemetery. (The Kyushu University Museum)
But as the team of scientists from Japan and the United States explain in an article just published in the journal PLoS ONE, the mystery of the origin of the flattened skulls of the Hirota people has now been solved, conclusively and definitively.
In their research, the scientists used two-dimensional images to analyze the exterior shape of the skulls in detail. They also took three-dimensional scans of the skull surfaces, to create more lifelike models that would bring out even more details. They also had access to similar images taken of skulls belonging to different Japanese indigenous groups (the Yayoi and Jomon peoples) who lived at the same time as the Hirota but in different locations. This allowed them to make precise and detailed comparisons that would reveal specifically how Hirota skulls were different from the norm.
A comparison between a Yayoi skull (left) and a Hirota skull (right). The Hirota skull has a much more flattened back of the head. Researchers believe this shows it has been deliberately modified. (Image credit: Seguchi Lab/Kyushu University/PLoS ONE)
In fact, these comparisons showed that were no similarities between the flattened backs of the Hirota skulls of the unaltered rear areas of the skulls from the other two indigenous groups. However, there were great similarities between the flattened Hirota skulls and modified skulls taken from Mesoamerican cemeteries belonging to the Maya, who frequently used binding or pressing techniques to alter the shapes of their children’s heads.
"Our results revealed distinct cranial morphology and significant statistical variability between the Hirota individuals with the Kyushu Island Jomon and Doigahama Yayoi samples," Seguchi said. "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."
The depressions referred to in this statement were indentations found in the skulls of the Hirota. These were remnants of the binding procedures that were used to create the flattening effect, and the same types of depressions have been found in other skulls from other cultures that were subjected to this type of sustained pressure.
Taken as a whole, the evidence collected during this research project shows that the Hirota were indeed using cranial modification techniques to change the shape of their children’s heads (the techniques only work on infants), and apparently were doing so on a wide scale.
Artificial Cranial Deformation: A Cultural Practice Rooted in Prehistory
Artificial cranial deformation (ACD), as the practice is now called, was surprisingly common in the ancient world, dating back far into prehistory in some locations. Skulls reshaped by ACD techniques have been found at archaeological sites in Germany, Croatia, North and Central America and on the steppes of Asia.
Skulls of Flat-Head Indians from Mennaloore Island, Columbia River, M.D. Chinnook. In the collection of Dr. A.L. Fisher, Elkhart, Indiana (Wellcome Images / CC by SA 4.0)
ACD was an especially popular custom among the Maya, and also among many other indigenous groups that occupied the lands of ancient Mesoamerica. One of the most notable of these were the Paracas people, who lived in what is now Peru 2,000 years ago. The techniques they used created skull deformations that were so significant and so elongated that some have misinterpreted their skeletal remains as belonging to aliens.
One flattened and elongated skull found in China was dated to approximately 10,000 BC. This suggests the practice was actually a Neolithic period innovation, and was passed down through history after that.
So what exactly is the purpose of this seemingly bizarre custom? That question is difficult to answer, since written records that could explain its significance to different peoples are lacking.
As for the Hirota, the Japanese and American scientists have an interesting theory about the origin of the practice.
Inside the hundreds of graves excavated in the cemetery on Tanegashima, archaeologists found rich caches of grave goods, including many beads and pieces of jewelry made from shells. Interestingly, these shells were not harvested from local beaches or the ocean, but instead came from thousands of miles away. This implies the Hirota were connected to peoples living in other regions via long-distance trade networks—and this, the researchers say, could explain why they were practicing cranial modification.
“We hypothesize that the Hirota people deformed their crania to preserve group identity and potentially facilitate long-distance trade of shellfish, as supported by archaeological evidence,” Seguchi and his study co-author James Frances Loftus III told CNN in an email interview.
This fascinating theory directly links cranial modification with intercultural interactions, which could have motivated ancient peoples to look for ways to stand out or be different. Some peoples may have seen cranial modification as a sacred practice that would bring favor from the gods, since many cultures worshipped deities that had flattened or elongated skulls. Seeking such favor may have seemed more urgent once ancient peoples began to come into contact with other cultures that would have been seen as competitors for limited resources.
“Through these findings, we believe we have begun the process of unravelling the still mysterious nature of the Hirota people, their culture, and potential trade practices,” Seguchi and Loftus wrote. “We hope that this study will open the eyes of researchers of this and other periods of Japanese prehistory to lines of thinking which allow us to view Japan through an international lens, seeing cultural practice as a fluid and changing phenomenon.”
Top image: Modified Hirota skull, Japan. Source: Noriko Seguchi/The Kyushu University Museum/PLOS ONE
By Nathan Falde
"Investigating intentional cranial modification: A hybridized two-dimensional/three-dimensional study of the Hirota site, Tanegashima, Japan" Noriko Seguchi, James Frances Loftus III, Shiori Yonemoto, Mary-Margaret Murphy PLOS ONE. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0289219