Elongated head in Japan. (The Kyushu University Museum).

Ancient Hirota People of Japan: Pioneers in Cranial Modification

Shining a Light on Centuries-Old Skull Alteration Practices.


Researchers from around the globe are shining a light on the intriguing practices of the Hirota people, ancient inhabitants of the Japanese island of Tanegashima. According to recent reports, the ancient Hirota people were pioneers in cranial modification. Cranial modification has been practiced for millennia.

Cranial modification, often referred to as skull deformation or reshaping, is an ancient practice wherein a person’s head is deliberately deformed by binding or pressing it during the early years of life, resulting in a permanently altered skull shape. Throughout ancient civilizations worldwide, this technique was widely adopted, often to signify group affiliation, social status, or aesthetic ideals, reflecting the deep cultural and societal significance attached to the human cranium.

International Collaboration Reveals Ancient Secrets

A combined effort by biological anthropologists from Kyushu University and the University of Montana is reshaping our understanding of intentional cranial modification. Published in the esteemed PLOS ONE journal, the research showcases the Hirota people’s affinity for this age-old art between the 3rd and 7th centuries CE. Impressively, the ritual knew no gender bounds, with both men and women participating in equal measure.

Cranial Modification: More Than Cosmetic

The art of cranial modification involves reshaping the human skull, typically initiated during early childhood. While the practice has ancient origins predating written history, its motivations are diverse. Some cultures see it as a mark of social status or a symbol of group affiliation.


Tanegashima’s Hirota site stands out due to its deep association with this practice. Noriko Seguchi, a leading figure from Kyushu University’s Faculty of Social and Cultural Studies, shared insights from the site’s excavations. “The remains we uncovered present clear cranial deformations, most pronounced in the occipital and posterior parietal bones,” she explained.

A Rigorous Approach to Unearth Truths

Determining whether these cranial changes were intentional or mere accidents proved challenging. The researchers turned to a blend of 2D imaging and advanced 3D scanning techniques. By juxtaposing this data against findings from other Japanese sites, like those of the Doigahama Yayoi and the Kyushu Island Jomon people, the team could draw clearer conclusions.

The results, as Seguchi noted, were compelling. “Our analyses unveiled significant morphological distinctions between the Hirota samples and others. These differences, especially alterations in the occipital bone and specific skull sutures, point decisively toward intentional cranial modification.”

Possible Motivations and Implications

While the practice’s exact motivations remain shrouded in mystery, the research team hypothesizes that the Hirota may have adopted it to strengthen group identity. There are even suggestions, backed by onsite archaeological evidence, that it could be linked to facilitating trade, particularly in shellfish.


Seguchi optimistically concluded, “Our research enriches the tapestry of knowledge about cranial modification in ancient societies. We hope it becomes a springboard for further studies, unveiling its cultural and social ramifications in East Asia and beyond.”

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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