Long-standing mystery of modified human skulls in ancient Japan solved by new analysis

Modified skulls found in an ancient burial site in Japan were deliberately reshaped in both men and women as an expression of collective identity.

In all the skulls, the normally rounded part at the back of the head was flattened and squared off, possibly through binding or being pressed against a flat surface during infancy.

The skulls belonged to individuals from the Hirota people, who lived on the southern Japanese island of Tanegashima from the third century to the seventh century.

Intentional skull reshaping is found in burials across Asia, Europe and Mesoamerica. Modified skulls from medieval sites in Germany and Croatia show signs of deformation

For the new study, the scientists 3D-scanned and digitally modeled 19 adult Hirota skulls to conduct more detailed morphological analysis.

In all three groups, male and female skulls were deformed. But in the Hirota skulls, the occipital region — a cranial bone at the back — was notably flatter than in Jomon and Doigahama skulls.