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Charles T. Keally
May 1991

Paper presented at the seminar "Ancient Relations between Japan and the Continent," held at the 36th International Conference of Orientalists in Japan, May 20, 1991, Tokyo, Japan.

The abstract of this paper and the commentators' comments on it were published in Transactions of the International Conference of Orientalists in Japan, no. 36, 1991, by The Toho Gakkai (The Institute of Eastern Culture). [ commentators' comments and my response ]


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. These people arrived in Japan by crossing a narrow strait separating Kyushu from the continent. Prior to that time the peoples inhabiting eastern Asia did not have the technology for crossing bodies of water wider than rivers, and they did not occupy eastern Siberia, northern China or Korea during the cold periods before 100,000 years ago when lowered sea levels opened landbridges between Japan and the continent. The first settlers of Japan quickly made the Kanto region in the east their central territory, and they rapidly developed unique technologies, a process roughly equivalent to the founder effect in genetics. From the first, the culture evolved in isolation from further continental influences. The people spread slowly northward, arriving in southern Hokkaido only about 20,000 years ago. Somewhat later, the microblade technology arrived in northern Hokkaido from the tundra of Siberia, marking the first real break in the isolation of the Japanese Paleolithic. This technology spread through the cultures of Tohoku, Kanto and Chubu, eventually apparently also reaching as far as Kyushu. Then direct influences from the microlithic of Korea appeared in the Kyushu microlithic, changing its character to a more continental form. The appearance of small fragments of pottery in sites from Aomori to Kyushu about this same time marks the beginning of the transition from the Paleolithic to the Jomon culture.

The question of the origins of the Japanese Paleolithic encompasses three main questions: When did the first settlers arrive and where did they come from? Was subsequent cultural evolution subject to continental influence or was it local innovation? And what was the origin of the pottery technology that marked the beginning of the end of the Paleolithic? This paper deals only with the first question.

The question of the origin of the first human inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago is closely tied to the question of the existence of an Early Paleolithic in Japan. The Japanese Early Paleolithic is commonly defined as any human artifacts older than 30,000 years. But the true age of the oldest artifacts defined as Late Paleolithic is closer to 35,000 years, the date I will use as the approximate line dividing the Japanese Early and Late Paleolithic. (The term Middle Paleolithic is not yet commonly used here.)

There are three general views on the Early Paleolithic in Japan. One holds that the existence of humans in Japan before 35,000 years ago is fully demonstrated. A second view holds that the present evidence is invalid for various reasons but that sooner or later valid evidence will be found or the present evidence will be satisfactorily confirmed. And the third view says that not only has no valid evidence of a Japanese Early Paleolithic been found yet but that there could not have been an Early Paleolithic human occupation of the islands.

The first view currently rests largely on the validity of the lithics and dates from sites in Miyagi Pref. and at Sozudai in Oita Pref. (Okamura 1987). No one any longer accepts Serizawa's "Chert Culture" found in sites in northern Kanto. This view also finds support in the apparent improbability of humans not being in Japan when there is unquestionable evidence of them in northern China by 500,000 years ago, and probably in Korea by at least 200,000 years ago.

Certainly the continental data are undeniable. There also were landbridges connecting Japan to the continent several times before 100,000 years ago, and large numbers of land animals and plants migrated into Japan at those times (Kamei et al. 1987). On the other hand, some archeologists feel there is good cause to doubt the validity of the Early Paleolithic artifacts or of their dates in Japan, at least as those artifacts and dates have been presented so far (Oda & Keally 1986). But these archeologists feel the continental evidence means that eventually the Japanese Early Paleolithic will be confirmed to the majority's satisfaction.

No one that I know of openly holds the third view, that there could not have been an Early Paleolithic in Japan. But many of the archeologists who express doubt about the materials from Miyagi Pref. seem to imply that they hold this view. And a great many archeologists indicate by their actions that they hold this view -- they consistently do not excavate the strata below the lower part of the Tachikawa Loam, strata older than roughly 35,000 years ago. Their basis for feeling that there are no artifacts in the deeper strata (or that there could not be artifacts there) completely eludes me.

All three hypotheses place the homeland of the original settlers of the Japanese islands in the northern China-Korean region. Those who feel the Japanese Early Paleolithic is fully demonstrated compare their materials to Zhoukoudian and other major Early Paleolithic sites in northern China (Okamura 1987). Those who feel the Japanese Early Paleolithic will eventually be confirmed suggest an origin in northern China and Korea (Oda & Keally 1979). And those who feel Japanese prehistory begins no earlier than 35,000 years ago appear to suggest the Late Paleolithic of northern China as the parent culture.

Common sense says that one of the two hypotheses that accept a probable Early Paleolithic in Japan must be valid, and that the idea that humans could not have been in the islands before 35,000 years is highly improbable. The existence of Early Paleolithic humans in China, and probably also in Korea, is unquestionable (Chang 1986; Derev'anko 1983; Jia 1980; Nakayama & Numayama 1981; Yi 1982), as is the existence of landbridges between Japan and the continent several times since humans first arrived in northern China (Kamei et al. 1987). I would certainly agree with this. But perhaps common sense is blinding us to the information that could be used to support the hypothesis that humans could not have reached Japan much earlier than the 35,000 years that is the age of the oldest wholly unquestioned artifacts in this country. The rest of this paper will explore the possibility that this third, seemingly unlikely hypothesis might in fact be valid.

My reasons for exploring an apparently improbable hypothesis lie on the Japanese side of the Korean Strait, where the evidence is looking more and more like there really were no humans in Japan earlier than about 35,000 years ago. Most of Serizawa's "Early Paleolithic" materials are openly not accepted by all archeologists working on this question, including those who favor the Miyagi materials (Okamura 1987). So these are not part of the discussion anymore. But I also find the Miyagi lithics unconvincing for many reasons, most of which are detailed in a paper published several years ago (Oda & Keally 1986). Since that paper was published, specialists in dating have raised further questions about the accuracy of the dates being used in Miyagi (Hashimoto et al. 1991), and geologists have expressed considerable doubt about the lithics, especially those from the lower levels at Zazaragi (Soda, Hadori, Sugihara and others, personal communications, 1988).

The Miyagi archeologists, however, have never responded to the criticisms of those who question their materials (because, they tell me, non-believers are fools and it is senseless to carry on discussions with fools), and they openly reject the geological and dating opinions that disagree with their views (Kamata, personal communication, 1988). Their attitude gets in the way of my easily accepting the validity of their data from Miyagi Pref., or from other sites they use as evidence of a Japanese Early Paleolithic.

Further, if the likelihood of mixing in the deposits is considered (the Miyagi archeologists reject this possibility, very unscientifically, I feel), then we see a sharp break in the cultural sequence at roughly 35,000 years ago. And despite the lack of any real enthusiasm on the part of archeologists excavating in South Kanto, the older strata are being probed deeply, over areas up to or exceeding 100 m2 in some sites, enough to think that by now something would have been found if it really existed. Yet no Early Paleolithic finds have ever been confirmed on the Musashino or Sagamino Uplands there. In addition, analysis of the wholly accepted evidence from sites dating between 35,000 and 25,000 years ago indicates that this early material has the characteristics of a pioneering settlement in unoccupied territory (Keally 1990).

But simply saying that this evidence suggests the possibility that no humans lived in Japan before about 35,000 years ago is not adequate support for the hypothesis. There are serious implications here for the cultural history of the continental Early and Middle Paleolithic. Specifically, if humans were not in Japan before the Late Paleolithic it must have been because they could not have been there. This means that (1) the natural environment of Japan was unsuitable for the adaptive strategies known to the early continental humans, or (2) there were no humans in northern China and Korea during the cold periods when landbridges were available, and they had no means of crossing water until sometime after the last landbridge disappeared.

The first possibility can be rather confidently ruled out. Until about 100,000 years ago, there were many migrations of continental animals and plants into Japan, and the environmental conditions of at least western Japan, and southern Korea and northern China were quite similar (Kamei et al. 1987, 1988). Perhaps the continental humans were not adpated to the conditions of the exposed lowlands of the coasts of China and Korea, or they could not survive in a land lacking cave sites for protection from the severe cold. But this is rather too speculative, and rather unlikely, I think.

Today it is generally agreed that there were no landbridges between Japan and the continent after about 100,000 years ago (Kamei & Research Group 1981; Kawamura 1985; Kawamura et al. 1989; Mogi 1981; Ohshima 1980b; Ota & Yonekura 1987). But it is not known when humans in eastern Asia acquired the capability to cross large bodies of water. There is no doubt humans crossed a wide stretch of sea from southeastern Asia to the New Guinea-Australian landmass sometime around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago (Shutler 1991). Humans of southern Chinese type were on the island of Okinawa roughly 30,000 years ago (Oshiro 1987:6-8), when that island was probably separated from the continent (Ohshima 1980a). And Kozu-shima obsidian is reported in at least one South Kanto site at 30,000 to 35,000 years ago, and this was certainly a water connection at that time (Kamaki et al. 1984).

Clearly, humans did not need landbridges to colonize the Japanese islands during the interstadial around 35,000 years ago, if that is in fact the time of the first settlement of the islands. If they needed landbridges before that time, they had them, at least several times before about 100,000 years ago. That means that the continental support for the hypothesis that humans could not have been in Japan before the Late Paleolithic lies in answering the question of why those humans did not cross the landbridges to Japan when these were available and were being used by other animals and plants.

The most obvious answer to this question is that humans were not in the area when the landbridges were open. Minimally, this means that they were not living in coastal regions, but it could also mean that they were not even in northern China or Korea at those times. I think that the Chinese and Korean Early and Middle Paleolithic evidence is far too weak to support an hypothesis either for this idea or against it (Chang 1986; Chung 1990; Derev'anko 1983; Huang 1990; Jia 1980; Nakayama & Numayama 1981; Sohn 1990; Yi 1982). And I also see no good evidence of humans in the Soviet Far East until about the Late Paleolithic (Derev'anko 1983, 1990a, 1990b).

Many of the lithics being called artifacts in China are almost certainly geofacts. Also, there are very few absolute age measurements for the half million or more years of Paleolithic human settlement in northern China, and none of these is refined enough to argue with conviction that they place humans in the area at times when Japan was connected to the continent (Chang 1986). The animal bones said to be associated with the human bones (or artifacts) seem to place some sites in glacial periods, but most of these sites appear to be secondary deposits with materials from many periods mixed together (Huang 1990; Jia 1980).

Looked at another way, there is no clear evidence that the early humans in northern China were hunting the large animals they are said to have been eating. If they were only scavenging the meat, they might not have been inclined to spread across the landbridges with the animals that moved into the Japanese islands at those times, even if they were in northern China then. The oldest clear evidence I find of big-game hunting in northern China is younger than the last landbridge (Jia 1980). Also, these early sites are very scarce, given the size of the area, and there would seem to have been no population pressure pushing the people to spread into neighboring territories. And, further, I find no evidence to suggest these people were exploiting resources that would bring their settlements into low-lying coastal areas, nor do there seem to be any sites reported in such places.

There is, however, reasonably good evidence of fire from sites older than 500,000 years, meaning humans had some of the means necessary for survival in glaciated northern China. But fire is not the only means necessary for this adaptation. The people would need clothing and shelter, too. Perhaps they were depending on caves for shelter and the low coastal areas lacked this necessity, which was also largely lacking in Japan.

For the moment then, it would seem possible that at least a fair argument can be made for the seemingly improbable hypothesis that humans could not have been in Japan much before 35,000 years ago. The Japanese evidence for earlier occupation of the islands continues to be weak, both as valid artifacts and as ancient artifacts. The lack of confirmed Early Paleolithic finds in the well stratified eolian deposits on the plateaus of South Kanto is beginning to make the possibility of ever finding valid Early Paleolithic materials seem more and more unlikely. And the continental evidence has too many weaknesses at the moment to say with any certainty that humans almost had to have migrated to Japan long before 35,000 years ago, when they would definitely have had to come by water. This is just an hypothesis, however, and hopefully it will stimulate the kind of research that will eventually prove it wrong.

References Cited