Paleopathological Evidence and Detection of Mycobacterium leprae DNA from Archaeological Skeletal Remains of Nabe-kaburi (Head-Covered with Iron Pots) Burials in Japan

Citation metadata

From: PLoS ONE(Vol. 9, Issue 2)
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,739 words
Lexile Measure: 1420L

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

Author(s): Koichi Suzuki 1,*, Aiko Saso 2,3, Keigo Hoshino 4, Junya Sakurai 5, Kazunari Tanigawa 1, Yuqian Luo 1, Yuko Ishido 1, Shuichi Mori 1, Kazuaki Hirata 4, Norihisa Ishii 1


The Nabe-kaburi burial was performed during the 15th to 18th centuries in the eastern region of Japan. In Japanese, " nabe" means pot and "kaburi " means to put on. Thus, the deceased were buried with an iron pot or mortar covering their heads. To date, a total of 105 Nabe-kaburi burials have been excavated in Japan [1].

There are two main theories in Japanese folklore as to why the deceased would be buried with iron pots on their heads [2], [3]. One is that the iron pots were worn to symbolically "block" spreading particular diseases, such as leprosy, tuberculosis or syphilis, which plagued the deceased when they were alive. The second reason is rather unique and somewhat humorous: Nabe-kaburi burials were performed for someone who died during the "Bon" period in Japan. The "Bon" is the Japanese ritual ceremony to welcome the souls of ancestors back from heaven during a 3-day period each summer. Since dying during the festival was considered imprudent, the ancestors beat the head of a descendant when they encountered each other on the way to and from the next world. Therefore, relatives of the descendant might have been trying to protect the head of the deceased at burial.

Such speculative stories serve to make the Nabe-kaburi burial appear more and more mysterious. However, a commonality between these burials and those of leprosy patients was noted as early as the initial study of the Nabe-kaburi burials more than 100 years ago. In addition, paleopathological examination of some cases revealed leprosy-specific skeletal changes in excavated specimens. During a time when there was no effective treatment, leprosy would have gradually spread over the entire body and caused specific osteological deformations in the nasal aperture, anterior nasal spine and alveolar process on the premaxilla, cortical areas of the tibia and fibula, distal ends of the metatarsals and diaphyses of the phalanges that may have included both direct and reactive changes [4]-[10].

To date, 105 Nabe-kaburi burials have been found in Japan (Table 1). The oldest were buried in the 15 th to 16th centuries, while the most recent have been dated to the 19th century. About half were excavated from the Kanto region of Japan (Figure 1 shaded area). Most others were found in Northeast Japan, with only a few in Midland and Southwest Japan, including Nagoya , Kyoto and Osaka , which were already large cities at that time. Not all of the burial remains have had osteological and paleopathological evaluations, probably because skeletal preservation was poor and trained anthropologists were not always available. According to excavation reports released by the local governments, age was assessed in 25 cases. Age estimates of the excavated remains vary widely, ranging from approximately 10 years to greater than 60 years, but middle age was the most common....

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A478820223