A team of biological anthropologists and archaeologists from Kyushu University and the University of Montana has broken new ground in our understanding on the practice of intentional cranial modification, a practice found in many ancient civilizations around the world.

publication in one moreThe team reports that the Hirota people, who lived on the southern Japanese island of Tanegashima around the 3rd to 7th centuries AD, also participated in the practice. Furthermore, the study found no significant differences in cranial modification between the sexes, indicating that both men and women intentionally practiced cranial modification.

Cranial modification is a form of body modification where a person’s head is bashed or bound, usually at a young age, to permanently deform the skull. The practice even predates written history, and researchers believe it was performed to show group affiliation or to display social status.

“One location in Japan that has long been associated with cranial deformities is the Hirota site on the Japanese island of Tanegashima in Kagoshima Prefecture. It is a mass burial site of the Hirota people who lived there during the late Yayoi period , around the 3rd century BC, until the Kofun period, between the 5th and 7th centuries BC.” Noriko Seguchi of the Faculty of Social and Cultural Studies of Kyushu University, who led the study, explains. “The site was excavated from 1957 to 1959 and again from 2005 to 2006. From the initial excavations, we found remains of cranial deformities characterized by the small head and flattened back of the skull, particularly the posterior parts of the occipital bone and parietal Found. Bones.”

However, while the site provided an ideal opportunity to study the phenomenon, it was unclear whether these cranial modifications were intentional, or simply the unintended result of other habits.

To conduct the study, the research group employed a hybrid approach, using 2D images to analyze the shape of skull outlines, as well as 3D scans of their surface. The group also compared crania data from other archeological sites in Japan, such as the Doigahama Yayoi people in western Yamaguchi, and the Kyushu Island Jōmon people, who were hunter-gatherer predecessors of the Yayoi people. As well as making a visual assessment of skull morphology, the team collected all this data and statistically analyzed the contours and shapes between the skulls.

Seguchi continues, “Our results revealed distinct cranial morphology and significant statistical variability between Hirota individuals from Kyushu Island Jōmon and Doigahama Yayoi specimens.” “The presence of a flattened back of the skull, which is characterized by changes in the occipital bone, as well as depressions in the parts of the skull that join the bones together, especially the sagittal and lambdoidal sutures, strongly suggest intentional cranial modification.” “

The motivations behind this practice are unclear, but researchers speculate that the Hirota people mutilated their skulls to preserve group identity and potentially facilitate long-distance trade of shellfish, as found at the site. This is supported by the archaeological evidence found.

Seguchi concluded, “Our findings contribute significantly to our understanding of the practice of intentional cranial modification in ancient societies.” “We hope that further investigation in this area will provide additional information about the social and cultural significance of this practice in East Asia and the world.”

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