Japan's Changing Early Palaeolithic Controversy -- One Person's Views 1973-2000

Home | Index by Charles T. Keally
August 28, 2001
revised: November 12, 2001

I began working in Japanese archaeology in 1967, and primarily in the Palaeolithic from 1970. My major topic of research after 1986 was Japan's Early Palaeolithic controversy. A review of my comments on the Japanese Early Palaeolithic over the years from 1973 to 2000 shows both a consistency and a gradual evolution in my thinking (see the list of exerpts below).

Before 1980, the question of an Early Palaeolithic in Japan revolved around materials published by Prof. Serizawa Chosuke. These were never widely accepted, and often were simply ignored in publications on Japan's Palaeolithic. Around 1980 a group of Serizawa's students began to propose other sites as truly Early Palaeolithic in age. Oda Shizuo, my colleague, found these materials very problematic right from the beginning. I later joined him in voicing doubts. When Oda and I published our detailed criticism of the Miyagi Early Palaeolithic materials in 1986 (Oda & Keally 1986), the archaeology world in Japan quickly made it very clear to both of us that ours was a minority opinion and should not be heard again. My publications on the subject after that were mostly 2-3 pages in the American annual Current Research in the Pleistocene.

My comments on the Japanese Early Palaeolithic, in that publication and others (as given below), show a consistency in holding reservations about the Early Palaeolithic sites, but these comments, especially in 1992, also make it clear that the Ohira finds began to give me hope that these materials were moving toward acceptability. And these Early Palaeolithic materials also clearly were being accepted by most archaeologists, including leaders in the field. It was no longer academically acceptable simply to say they were controversial and then just brush them off. So I began to present them in more detail and then express my concerns about them. Some of my reservations are clearly stated; some are seen in the use of the words possible (Takamori) and probable (Ohira) and quotation marks around Early Palaeolithic.

There were many problems that needed good explanations, but with Ohira I began to see a possibility that those explanations might soon be made. They were not. And finally, on November 5, 2000, Fujimura admitted planting artifacts on two of the sites and thereby threw strong suspicion on all of the other sites he had been involved with.

List of Comments 1973-2000


...those assemblages referred to by some writers as Lower Palaeolithic....However, most archaeologists in Japan feel these assemblages are Jomon -- e.g. Nyu -- or naturally formed stones -- e.g. Hoshino layers 5-11, Iwajuku O/Loc. D, Isogami and Sozudai lower. (p. 19)


(transl. from Japanese) As far as we know, the oldest cultural materials in Japan are those found in the upper part of Stratum X of the Tachikawa Loam, just below the "Black Band II" stratum. Older artifacts are reported, but these are not confirmed as human artifacts or there are questions about their geological provenience (Arai 1971a, 1971b).


[no mention of an Early Palaeolithic culture in Japan]


Serizawa...claiming that it [the Late Palaeolthic] was preceded by a Lower Palaeolithic, represented at that time by the finds from the Sozudai site in Kyushu (Serizawa, 1965).

The views of the older generation of Palaeolithic scholars...Serizawa (1976) simply reiterates his early views, relying primarily on the materials from the early, small excavations, many of which he directed himself. He seldom uses the data obtained in the past decade, especially that from the Musashino Upland.

Of the assemblages most frequently described as Lower Palaeolithic, only those from Gongenyama I and Fukui 15 are man-made. However, the provenience of the Gongenyama I artifacts is not certain, and a single radiocarbon age measurement given as being older than 31,900 years hardly constitutes a sound basis for assigning the Fukui 15 assemblage to the Lower Palaeolithic...that date is most likely just another of the many Palaeolithc dates known to be erroneous.

The objects from a number of other sites said to be Lower Palaeolithic are correctly dated, but they clearly were formed naturally. Those from Sozudai are simply broken gravel excavated from a gravel bed. From Iwajuku 0 (Zero) they are naturally chippped chert flakes picked out of a thick talus bed. From Hoshino 5-11 and Mukoyama 6-7 they are also talus, and at Akabori Iso and Fujiyama they come from mudflow deposits. Most archaeologists and geologists question the human workmanship of these objects.

In addition, there are a few reasons for suspecting that in fact humans did not settle Japan until about 30,000 years ago.


The existence of artifacts of human manufacture older than 30,000 or 35,000 yr B.P. is perhaps the most disputed issue in Japanese Paleolithic archaeology.



The existence of "Early Palaeolithic" humans in Japan, prior to 30,000 B.P., is one of the most controversial questions in Japanese Pleistocene archaeology.

Serizawa's materials do not seem to have been widely accepted in Japan, although to my knowledge a thorough rebuttal of them has never been published. The Miyagi materials are getting wider acceptance; they have been extensively published by their chief proponents Michio Okamura and Toshiaki Kamata, and by several other archaeologists. Nevertheless, a great many archaeologists and geologists dispute their dating or their human workmanship, or both (e.g. Oda and Keally 1986).

Specifically, Shizuo Oda and I recently studied all of the publications on the Miyagi "Early Palaeolithic" and concluded that those materials are highly dubious (Oda and Keally 1986).

These older components certainly do not "appear to have a relatively high integrity and sound dating" as claimed by Reynolds (1986).


At present there still are no widely accepted sites in Tohoku or Hokkaido believed to be older than 30,000 years, so-called "Early Palaeolithic" sites. In fact, sites predating 24,000 B.P. are lacking in both regions, with the possible exception of a few in Miyagi prefecture (see Oda and Keally 1979, 1986).


Excavated and fully published Early Palaeolithic sites are still uncommon, and most of the materials are highly debatable (Oda and Keally 1986). A few recently reported finds in Kanto, said to be 35,000 to 50,000 years old [Tama New Town 471-B, Kaminodejima, Ohira, Nanamagari] (Tokyo-to 1987; Tateno 1989; Fujiwara and Fujimura 1990; Toda 1990) look reasonably good, but they are not yet fully published and consequently their validity could not be properly judged for inclusion [in this paper].


This model suggests that the first peopling of the main Japanese islands occurred no earlier than 35,000 years ago, and that these people and their culture derived from the region encompassing northern China, Tungpei, the southern Soviet Maritime and the Korean peninsula. full text of paper


The controversy over the Japanese "Early Palaeolithic" -- defined as everything older than 30,000-35,000 years -- began seriously in the 1960s with Serizawa's excavation at the Sozudai site and his hypothesis of a "Chert Culture" based on his excavations of the Hoshino and Iwajuku Location D sites. Serizawa's hypothesis was never widely accepted in Japan. The first major turn in the controversy came with the excavation of a number of sites in Miyagi Prefecture beginning in the late 1970s. These sites were more widely accepted. The controversy now seems set to take another major turn, with several new publications by the Miyagi archaeologists and with the recent excavation of the Ohira site in Fukushima Prefecture.

Recently the arguments in favor of the Miyagi "Early Palaeolithic" have been strengthened by the publication of three volumes of research on the Babadan A site (Tohoku Rekishi Shiryokan and Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1986, 1988, 1989), and by detailed reports published on the Aobayama B (Sudo et al. 1987) and Takamori sites (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1991). These reports add many more reasonably consistent radiocarbon, fission-track and thermoluminescenc dates, as well as some equally consistent dates based on amino acid racemization, electron spin resonance and depositional remnant geomagnetism. Several well-dated wide-spread tephras have been clarified in the geological sequence, adding further support to the early dating given to these sites. Additional support for the human origin of the lithics comes from analysis of natural remnant magnetism that has found spots thought to be burnt earth ("hearths"), analysis of lipids on some of the lithics that has tentatively identified Naumann's elephant (Palaeoloxodon naumanni) and Yabe's elk (Sinomegaceros yabei) (Nakano 1988), use-wear analysis that has determined human functions for some of the "tools," and intra-site distribution analysis that has shown patterns suggesting human activities.

Still, those archaeologists who have opposed the Miyagi hypothesis continue to point to the many problems in the dates, the lack or near lack of refittable pieces (evidence of tool manufacturing), the lack of non-local stone, and the lack of vertical displacement of the lithics. Refittable pieces, non-local stone and vertical displacement of 15-50 cm are universal characteristics of Late Palaeolithic sites in Japan, and it seems odd that this is not the case with the "Early Palaeolithic" sites. These archaeologists have also raised serious questions about the validity of the remnant magnetism studies finding "hearths," the lipid studies so conveniently finding the generally imagined main prey of the Palaeolithic hunters, the use-wear studies finding indications of human functions rather than natural scratches, and the distribution studies demonstrating human activities rather than random scatterings or natural clusterings. Dispite the volume of new support, the controversy over the Miyagi materials seems to be stalemated.

The Ohira site (and a handful of related sites) is the most recent candidate for "Early Palaeolithic" status. But unlike the other sites proposed as "Early Palaeolithic," there is absolutely no question about the human workmanship of the Ohira artifacts, and the context and dating both seem relatively secure...Moreover, typologically and temporally the Ohira artifacts could be predecessors of the oldest Late Palaeolithic artifacts in eastern Japan.

The only possible problem I see at the moment is the small chance that the key layers at Ohira have been misidentified. Given the information that is already available, however, I think this is very unlikely. What is more likely is that Ohira will soon become the first fully accepted Japanese site dating earlier than 35,000 years ago. Although this will only push the age of the first fully accepted human settlement in Japan back by 10,000-15,000 years, it should at least move the controversy off of dead center.

1992, 1993 Aided Publication

1993 Unpublished Paper 1

The results of this study lead initially to two conclusions: (1) the Early and Middle Palaeolithic lifeways in Japan were both radically different from those of the Late Palaeolithic; and (2) the Early and Middle Palaeolithic lifeways in Japan were very different from any lifeways known or proposed for historic or prehistoric foragers elsewhere in the world. This second conclusion then casts doubt on the validity of the Japanese Early and Middle Palaeolithic evidence.

full text of paper

1993 Unpublished Paper 2

The detailed research on the Early Palaeolithic sites in Miyagi Prefecture is of particular interest. This recent research is bringing out the contrast between the Early and Late Palaeolithic cultures ever more sharply and clearly. The Early Palaeolithic sites all yield only small collections of artifacts. The raw materials are mostly or entirely local. There is a nearly complete lack of evidence of tool manufacture or repair at the sites. And the artifacts in sites older than about 50,000 years follow no regular patterns of form. The Late Palaeolithic sites generally yield dense concentrations of artifacts. Much of the raw material comes from outside the local area, some of it from great distances. There is almost always clear evidence of tool manufacture and repair at the sites. And tools of regular patterned forms are common. Explanation of this contrast should be the next major area of Palaeolithic research in Tohoku, and it should provide some interesting ideas for discussion.


The JAPANESE PALAEOLITHIC is a period generally thought to be dominated by big-game hunters, although there is little direct evidence for how these people lived. Everyone agrees that there is a Late Palaeolithic in Japan, dated from about 35,000 years ago to the advent of pottery technology 13,000 to 10,000 years ago. The evidence for humans in Japan before 35,000 years ago is quite controversial; advocates claim ages up to 600,000 years for the oldest sites.


The Japanese Palaeolithic is a culture that ends--by the general definition--with the first appearance of pottery technology about 13,000 to 10,000 uncalibrated radiocarbon years ago, at the end of the last glacial period. The beginning of the Japanese Palaeolithic is controversial, with some archaeologists arguing strongly for ages as early as 600,000 years and others arguing just as strongly that anything older than 35,000 years is invalid, either it is not of human origin or it is not dated correctly (Oda & Keally 1986). I have strong reservations about the materials claimed to be evidence of humans in Japan before about 35,000 years ago, but I also cannot find a scientifically sound reason for saying definitely that they are not valid.

The logic seems valid that, given the presence of humans at Lantien and Zhoukoudien in North China 700,000 to 200,000 years ago, there is no reason why these same humans could not have reached Japan. Landbridges connected the islands to the continent several times before 100,000 years ago, and animals (and plants) migrated there during these intervals. Why not humans? But finding widely acceptable evidence of such early humans in Japan has proven difficult.

Period Phases Dates
Early Palaeolithic Kami-Takamori/Takamori 600,000-300,000 B.P.
Babadan 300,000-120,000/135,000 B.P.
Middle Palaeolithic Sodehara 120,000/135,000-75,000 B.P.
Ohira 75,000-45,000 B.P.
Kitamae Lower 45,000-43,000 B.P.
Gongenyama/Fukui 15 43,000-35,000 B.P.

A number of EARLY PALAEOLITHIC sites are now reported, but still controversial. The site of Kamitakamori, in Miyagi Prefecture on the northern Pacific coast of the main island of Honshu, yielded bifacial tools in possible caches in strata dated around 600,000 years ago. These are presently the oldest claimed evidence of humans in the Japanese islands. The nearby Takamori site is dated almost as old, but it yielded mostly small flake tools. A site in Fukushima Prefecture, just south of Miyagi, has yielded three artifacts in equally old strata. A number of other sites, mostly in Miyagi Prefecture, also belong to what is called the Japanese Early Palaeolithic by advocates.

Several MIDDLE PALAEOLITHIC sites dated around 50,000 years ago have produced artifacts that show considerable similarity to Mousterian artifacts of Europe. The best of these sites is the Ohira site in Fukushima Prefecture. There is no question that these are artifacts or that they resemble Mousterian lithics. But questions have been raised about the validity of the dates, and it has been pointed out that these artifacts also resemble ones from the end of the Late Palaeolithic in Japan. Other sites of Middle Palaeolithic age are identified elsewhere in Fukushima and in Miyagi Prefecture.

October 2000

Early & Middle Palaeolithic Problems

  1. geological processes in site formation not studied -- taphonomy
  2. scarcity of refits
  3. almost no cultural evolution in Early Palaeolithic
  4. seems that early excavations generally found no spatulas, but more recent excavations all find them
  5. all eastern Japan sites found by Fujimura
  6. rather sloppy work & publications
  7. accept as human artifacts because they fit the parameters, but context says geofacts
  8. compilations of the Early & Middle Pal. materials are very superficial
  9. dates are in fact widely scattered for the same stratum
  10. sociological problems in Early & Middle Palaeolithic research
  11. many archaeologists dig only as deep as their interest