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Charles T. Keally
May 1993

Paper planned to be presented at the 38th International Conference of Orientalists in Japan, to be held in Tokyo, May 14-15, 1993, but never finished.


Despite protests to the contrary, the existence of humans in Japan earlier than 35,000 years ago is still one of the most important unsolved questions in Japanese Palaeolithic research. The surest way to confirm human habitation in any region of the world, at any time in prehistory, is to find unquestionable artifacts, in unquestionable primary geological context, with unquestionable absolute dates. That is a lot of "unquestionables" for archaeological research. Even the best research has trouble eliminating all the doubts that hobble an archaeological study. Most of the time, archaeologists have to reason from many other angles to try to buttress the weak evidence that they unearth.

The Japanese Early and Middle Palaeolithic controversy has been going on for three decades, yet many archaeologists still disagree that the proposed evidence unquestionably supports the hypothesis of humans in Japan more than 35,000 years ago. These archaeologists question the validity of the artifacts, the dates, or both. But the difficult physical, chemical, geological and theoretical studies that might provide confirmation of the artifacts and dates are not being conducted, at least to the satisfaction of the doubters. In the absence of adequate information from such studies, this paper attempts a new theoretical approach: a cultural anthropological interpretation of the hard evidence, assuming the accuracy and validity of that evidence as it is published by the principle archaeologists, to see if that evidence gives a believable picture of the Early and Middle Palaeolithic humans and their lifeways in Japan.

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.

Virtually no one doubts the presence of Late Palaeolithic humans in Japan -- habitation of the islands beginning 30,000-35,000 years ago. And none of the fundamental questions (cultural sequence, dates, regionalization) about the Late Palaeolithic remain controversial. But the question of the existence of an Early (and Middle) Palaeolithic in Japan remains highly controversial, despite the protestations of its proponents to the contrary (Okamura 1987:243). The major questions focus on the validity of the dates or of the artifacts: are the dates reliable and do they actually date the artifacts, and are the artifacts of human origin or are they natural products?

I have been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Early Palaeolithic in Japan (Oda and Keally 1986; Keally 1987). My arguments have focused on not only the dates and the artifacts, however, but also on the quality of the research -- the excavation, analysis and interpretation. At the 1990 ICOJ, held in Tokyo, I approached the problem from another point of view (Keally 1990). If humans were to be in Japan at a very early date, they would have to have been in North China and Korea at times when landbridges formed, or they would have to have had a means of water travel. The continental evidence neither helps nor hinders the support for very early humans in Japan, leaving me still uncertain about the validity of the evidence for an Early Palaeolithic here.

In this paper I will take a wholly different approach to the problem. I will assume that all the basic data are accurate as the proponents report them, and then use these data to develop a cultural anthropological reconstruction of the Early Palaeolithic way of life in Japan. If the data are in fact accurate, they should lead to a sensible reconstruction; if they are not accurate, the reconstruction should be anthropological nonsense.

This assumption of accuracy, however, is a very large assumption for many reasons. Among these reasons, the most serious is the fact that the principle archaeologists will directly contradict the opinions of Japan's leading geologists on geological facts that disagree with these archaeologists' views. The most outstanding example of this is the interpretation of what the archaeologists have called strata 12 to 16 at the Zazaragi site. They insist that these are all different deposits, two of them with in situ artifacts. The geologists insist that these strata are a single-event pyroclasitc flow (Soda 1989:xx-xx; verbal opinions expressed at the site by several other of Japan's leading archaeologists in 19yy). I automatically become suspicious of everything a person says when that person strongly disagrees with experts in a field in which that person has no training.

The database for studying the Early Palaeolithic in Japan is comparatively poor. I could find only 66 sites (compared to probably 5,000 or more in the Late Palaeolithic). Only about 20 of these have been excavated (about 2,000 Late Palaeolithic sites have been excavated). And most sites, and most excavated sites, are in Miyagi Prefecture (Late Palaeolithic sites are common everywhere). Further, Okamura (1987:238) says there are somewhat more than 1,000 artifacts -- there might now be 1,500-2,000 (compared to 1,000 to 10,000 from single excavations of Late Palaeolithic sites). Also, little is known of the topography and flora around the Early Palaeolithic sites at the time they were occupied (these are generally reasonably well known for Late Palaeolithic sites). On the other hand, the Early Palaeolithic sites are being more intensively dated than the Late Palaeolithic sites, and use-wear studies, and perhaps lipid analyses, are also more common in Early Palaeolithic excavation reports.

The Japanese Early Palaeolithic spans a considerable range of time and environments. Thus, in order to understand the lifeways of these early people, it is necessary to look at the data in a number of meaningful chronological units. The principle researchers agree generally on the sequence of sites and occupations, although there are many problems in the precise dating of these. There is some disagreement, however, on the details of the major divisions of this long sequence. I will follow the scheme developed by the key researchers in Miyagi Prefecture -- Kamada, Kajiwara and Yamada (1989:283, 287-291) -- but I will also incorporate ideas from Okamura (1987, 1990:66-70), who was one of the key researchers until recently. I will also incorporated a small amount of new data, particularly on the Takamori and Ohira sites.

Kamada et al. (1989) divide the Early Palaeolithic sequence into three major units, which they call Groups A, B and C, from oldest to youngest. Okamura's (1987, 1990) ideas suggest a subdivision of Group B into an early and late phase.

Group A sites date older than 110,000 years. The artifacts consist of small flakes and flake tools, about 2-3 cm long, and mostly of jasper and chalcedony. Small points and point-like scrapers (also called round scrapers) are the only recognized regular forms. Only five sites are certainly assigned to this group: Takamori (ca. 500,000 yrs) with 44 artifacts, Nakamine C Stratum VII (ca. 380,000 yrs) with 106 artifacts and 4 pebbles, Babadan A Strata 32 and 33 (ca. 200,000 yrs) with 4 artifacts combined, Aobayama B Stratum 11d (ca. 190,000 yrs) with 3 artifacts, and Babadan A Stratum 20 (ca. 125,000 yrs) with 178 artifacts. Kashiwagi 7 is said to be intermediate between Group A and Group B sites.

Group B sites date between 110,000 yrs and 45,000 yrs. Most components are small, containing less than 50 artifacts. But the number of sites (components) increases sharply in this period. There is considerable variation in the stone material used to make the artifacts -- both fine-grained and coarse-grained stone was used, and the jasper and chalcedony became rare and were replaced by fine-grained siliceous shale and tuff. The artifact types, too, were more varied. Most notable are the many scrapers and points, and the "bevelled point" made of fine-grained stone. Coarse-grained stone was used for handaxes, chopping tools, pics, cleavers, ovoids and other such large tools.

Group C sites are dated 45,000 yers to 35,000 yrs (or to 33,000 yrs). The number of sites is high, especially considering the relatively short period of time involved. Fine-grained siliceous shale and tuff increase further as materials in this period, while the coarse-grained stones disappear. Scrapers become more varied in form and often make up 20% to 40% of the inventory. Extensively worked points and ax-like tools are characteristic. Otherwise, the artifacts of Group C sites are similar to those of Group B sites. The Group C culture evolves directly into the Late Palaeolithic in Japan.

The general characteristics of all Early Palaeolithic sites contrast sharply with those of Late Palaeolithic sites. Refittable artifacts, artifacts made from the same nodule, and other evidence of tool manufacturing and repairing on the site are extremely rare. There are only 4 sets of refittable artifacts: two from the Babadan A Stratum 20 component and one each from the Yasuzawa A Stratum 12 and the Takamori components. Most sites are in geologically active locations. The sites are either in places with many thick pumice layers or pyroclastic flows, or the artifacts are in fluvial deposits. Only a few of the sites are found in loam deposits and only one in a cave. Pollen has not been preserved in the cultural strata, and the zirons in these strata are badly weathered. And there is much other evidence that suggests (at least to me) that the deposits might be secondary. Some badly reversed dates suggest the same thing. The Early Palaeolithic collections are extremely small compared to Late Palaeolithic ones, and the artifacts are made mostly, or solely, of local stone. These vast differences need to be considered when reconstructing the Japanese Early Palaeolithic lifeways.

Babadan A Stratum 20 is probably the best studied and reported of all the Early Palaeolithic components in Japan. This component, and the other components of Group A, thus is the best one for illustrating the general cultural anthropological reconstruction of the first settlers in the Japanese islands.

The Group A components span a period of nearly 400,000 years, from about 500,000 years ago to about 110,000 years ago. This period saw considerable change in climate, topography, fauna and flora, and the human species. These should be discussed first to provide the background for visualizing the cultural materials and the adaptation they might reflect.

No hominid fossils of this period have been found yet in Japan. But the continental finds probably can be used safely for a general statement of human physical changes at this time. At the time of the Takamori and Nakamine C Stratum VII occupations, the hominids were most likely Homo erectus, probably similar to those found at Zhoukoudien Cave, Peking Man. Around 200,000 or 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus evolved into a form called Archaic Homo sapiens, which evolved into the next form of hominid about 100,000 years ago. These Archaic Homo sapiens would have been the humans to occupy the Babadan A site in Strata 32, 33 and Stratum 20, and the Aobayama B Stratum 11d site.

The climate saw several alternating phases of temperate and cool-temperate weather (Sohma 1986:65-66; Suzuki and Takeuti 1989). The Group A period seems to begin with or just after a major continental glaciation, and to end with another major glaciation. These changes in the climate affected the sea levels, fauna and flora, and the way humans would have to have adapted.

The changes in sea levels sometimes exposed landbridges between Japan and the continent. But these do not seem to have been as important as was thought earlier. Significant arrivals of new animal species seem to have occurred only in the later part of the period, about 300,000 to 130,000 years ago, probably via a landbridge between Korea and Kyushu (Kamei et al. 1987:88; Kamei et al. 1988:200).

The animals at the time of Takamori and Nakamine C Stratum VII were predominantly temperate-forest species (Kawamura 1991:217). More than half were endemic, that is, species that evolved locally in Japan. There were also a few species from the warm-temperate forest of South China. These probably arrived sometime between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago. But generally the Japanese fauna were not closely tied to the continent. More than half the species are still in Japan today.

The composition of this early fauna included a large variety of large, medium and small animal species. There were elephants (Stegodon and Mammuthus), rhinoceroses, Yabe's elk or extinct giant deer, two species of deer (Cervus), musk deer (Moschus), milu (Elaphurus), and several bovids (Bubalus, Buffelus, Bibos geron and Bison). Both an extinct wild boar and the wild boar still common in Japan existed at this time. There were also many kinds of weasels, badgers, martens, foxes, racoon dog, hedgehogs, shrews, moles, shrew moles, hamsters, wood lemmings, voles, mice, dormouses, bats, and hares. Among the possibly dangerous species found in Japan at this time were large cats (Felis spp.), wolf (Canis lupus), and bears (Ursus sp. and Selenarctos thibetanus).

During the occupations of Babadan A Strata 32,33, Aobayama B Stratum 11d and Babadan A Stratum 20 (about 300,000-130,000 yrs), the animals were mainly temperate species and predominantly endemic, with an increase in the proportion of extant species (Kawamura 1991:218). Some earlier species became extinct, most notably the elephants and rhinoceroses, but similar species replaced these in most cases. The most notably change was the appearance of the Naumann's elephant (Kawamura 1991:217). At least 8 species of insectivores have been identified, 9 species of rodents, 6 species of bats, 3 or 4 species of weasels, 2 species of badgers, the extant wild boar, deer, racoon dog, hare, and newly the Japanese monkey (Kawamura et al. 1989:320-322). There are also some species that have not been recorded but which might have existed, judging from the fauna of the preceeding and succeeding periods: Yabe's elk, musk deer, wolf, bears (possibly Ursus arctos), and large cats (possibly the leopard Panthera pardus, tiger P. tigris and puma Felis sp.).

Japan's famed metasequoia flora was extinct by about 1.0 million years ago. By 500,000 years ago, this flora was replaced with fully modern and indigenous plants (Sohma 1986; Suzuki and Takeuti 1989; Suzuku and Nasu 1988; Nakamura and Yamanaka 1992; Onishi 1990). The plant cover was varied: forests, grasslands, marshes. The forests were mixed needleleaf and broadleaf trees, and the broadleafs were mostly deciduous, with only a few evergreen. The specific plants varied a bit with the temperature changes. Overall, the forests at this time were rich in species. Some of the more notable genera include beech (Fagus), oak (Quercus), alder (Alnus), hornbeam (Carpinus), elm (Zelkova), birch (Betula), magnolia (Magnolia), pine (Pinus), cedar (Cryptomeria), spruce (Picea), fir (Abies), and hemlock (Tsuga). The humans could possibly have used the walnuts (Juglans and Pterocarya) and the acorns of the evergreen oaks (Cyclobalanopsis) as sources for food.

Now, given these general conditions, how did the Group A humans actually live? The cultural evidence is poor, as already noted, but a brief description of each site should shed some light on this question. Only Babadan A Stratum 20, however, really provides a good look at the people's lifeways.



Sekki Bunka Danwakai, ed. 1978 Zazaragi Iseki Hakkutsu Chosa Hokokusho I. (Sekki Bunka Danwakai Shi Dai'isshu). Tagajo:Sekki Bunka Danwakai.

Site Date
Group C period:
Fukui Cave Stratum 15 35,000 yrs
Kirihara 35,000 yrs
Babadan A Strata 6 & 7 40,000 yrs
Babadan C,D Stratum 12  
Yasuzawa A,B Stratum 12  
Zazaragi Stratum 13 41.000 yrs
Irinosawa 40,000-42,000 yrs
Shibiki Stratum 6  
Gongenyama 43,000 yrs
Fujiyama 43,000-45,000 yrs
Group B/C period:
Yamada Uenodai Lower  
Kitamae Lower  
Shibiki Stratum 8  
Group B (2) period:
Zazaragi Stratum 15 43,000 yrs
Kaminodejima 45,000 yrs
Nanamagari 45,000 yrs
Ohira 45,000 yrs
Honikikake C 45,000-50,000 yrs
TNT 471-B 49,000 yrs
Takenomori 60,000-70,000 yrs
Babadan A Stratum 10 70,000 yrs
Babadan A Strata 9-11 45,000-75,000 yrs
Nakamine C Stratum IV  
Group B (1) period:
Sodehara Loc. 3 100,000 yrs
Babadan A Stratum 19 100,000-120,000 yrs
Shibiki Stratum 9  
Kaseizawa 3rd Interglacial
Sozudai Shimosueyoshi gravels
Group A period:
Kashiwagi 7  
Babadan A Stratum 20 125,000 yrs
Aobayama B Stratum 11d 190,000 yrs
Babadan A Strata 32,33 200,000 yrs
Nakamine C Stratum VII 380,000 yrs
Takamori 500,000 yrs

SOURCES: Basic chronology (Kamada et al. 1989), Group B subdivision (Okamura 1987), and additional sites from (Okamura 1987; Kato 1992). Dates from many sources (mostly from Soda 1989; Machida and Arai 1992; both quoting other sources). New sites have been added as they were reported.