The practice of skull modification has a long and intriguing history across various cultures worldwide. While evidence of deliberate skull shaping has been found in different parts of Asia, Japan remained relatively scarce. However, a recent comprehensive analysis conducted by anthropologists from Kyushu University in Japan has shed light on intentional cranial modification in ancient Japan, specifically on the island of Tanegashima.
The focus of their study was the Hirota site on Tanegashima, which dates back to the 3rd to 7th centuries CE. This site, initially excavated between 1957 and 1959 and later from 2005 to 2006, yielded hundreds of full and partial skeletons and thousands of grave goods. During the initial excavation, remains with cranial deformations were discovered with a short head and flattened back of the skull, especially the occipital and posterior parts of the parietal bones.
The researchers conducted a comprehensive comparative analysis to determine whether these skull shapes resulted from intentional modification or unintentional processes. They compared skulls from the Hirota site with those of Jomon people from Kyushu before the Yayoi Period and contemporaneous Yayoi Doigahama people from another island.
Their analysis revealed distinct characteristics in the Hirota skulls consistent with intentional modification, setting them apart from the other two groups. Specifically, the Hirota skulls exhibited flattened backs, cranial bulges, asymmetries, and depressions that suggested the shape had been deliberately altered.
Although the reasons behind this practice remain uncertain, the study indicated that it was not tied to gender, as both men and women at the Hirota site had modified skulls. This suggests that cranial modification might have served a cultural purpose, potentially reinforcing cultural identity or distinguishing the Hirota people from neighbouring communities.
The findings significantly contribute to our understanding of intentional cranial modification in ancient societies, offering valuable insights into this practice's social and cultural significance in East Asia and beyond. While the motivations behind skull modification in ancient Japan may remain a mystery, further research could provide additional context and insights into this intriguing practice.