Assumptions & Stereotypes:
Human Presence in North China and Korea,
and Landbridges and Watercraft

Assumptions Index by Charles T. Keally
September 27, 2003
last revised: October 7, 2003

Discussions of when humans first settled the Japanese islands invariably make assumptions about the presence of humans in China and the Korean peninsula, and about the first use of watercraft. These assumptions invariably are implicit rather than explicit, and they are far from being well founded.

Early Humans in China and Korea:

No one anywhere in the world questions the presence of humans in northern China by at least 700,000 years ago -- the early Homo erectus Lantien fossils (Chang 1986, pp. 36-39; Barnes 1993, p. 43). And there are many younger Homo erectus fossils in northern China, such as those from Zhoukoudian (Peking Cave). Korea reports human fossils only as old as archaic Homo sapiens (Bae 1992, p. 19). However, much older stone artifacts are reported there (Bae 1992; Nelson 1993), and the Chongok-ni site was recently dated with considerably reliability at about 300,000 to 350,000 years (Kankoku 2003).

Assumption #1
Humans were in northern China and Korea CONTINUOUSLY from the time of their first arrival there, and consequently they could have migrated to the Japanese islands together with the large land mammals that came across the landbrigdes that formed during glacial periods.

But, is there unquestionable evidence of humans living in northern China and Korea during glacial periods? I have seen some (not very detailed) publications that appear to indicate that humans were NOT in northern China during cold periods when landbridges had formed between Japan and the continent. Before making hypotheses that depend on continuous Pleistocene human occupation of northern China and Korea, we need to study the evidence thoroughly to see if it supports the assumption of continous, uninterrupted human occupation of those regions.

And, when using this evidence, we need to be careful about other assumptions. I invariably see several other dangerous assumptions underlying use of information from China and Korea:

Assumption #1.1
The "artifacts" reported from continental sites are in fact all human products.

Assumption #1.2
The dates for the continental "artifacts" are all reliable and correct.

Assumption #1.3
The "artifacts" and the dates are definitely associated.

In many cases that I have seen in the literature, one or more of these three assumptions is very questionable. But I have never seen any of these assumptions made explicit in the literature, and thus I have never seen any of them questioned.

First Watercraft:

The discussions of when humans first settled the Japanese islands also invariably bring up the first appearance of watercraft. These discussions contain two major assumptions:

Assumption #2
The lack of evidence for watercraft before a certain date means humans had no watercraft before that date.

Assumption #3
The oldest evidence for the use of watercraft MUST be outside Japan.

"The major flaw in inferential arguments based
on excavated data is the assumption, always
implicit, that the absence of evidence is
evidence for absence." (Michael Brian Schiffer,
archaeologist, University of Arizona, quoted in:
David Hurst Thomas, Archaeology, 3rd ed.,
Fortworth: Harcourt Brace, 1998, p. 162)

In archaeology, the lack of evidence for something is not necessarily the evidence for the lack of that something. This should be common sense just from reading the newspapers (see for example: Miyashiro 2003a,b). How many times each year do Japanese newspapers report the finding of another "oldest yet found" that necessitates at least minor rewriting of history or prehistory? Each find of another "oldest yet found" gives ever more support to the assumption that "the absence of evidence is NOT the evidence for absence."

Further, throughout Japanese archaeological interpretation there seems to be the assumption that nothing of cultural significance could have been developed first in the Japanese islands -- pottery technology, bow and arrow, watercraft, magatama curved jewels, to name a few items that have this assumption attached to hypotheses about their origins. To this assumption I ask simply, "Why not?"

A cynic could think that a large percentage of Japanese archaeologists think humans become stupid simply by living in the Japanese islands. I think the Jomon culture strongly contradicts the cynic's view and the archaeologists' assumption of Japanese islanders lack of inventiveness. Or, stated differently, the Jomon culture contradicts the "from the continent" assumption.


Thorough studies of the history of Pleistocene human occupation of northern China and Korea, and of landbridges, landbridge dates and the use of watercraft all need to be carried out before any useful hypothesis can be developed about when humans first MIGHT have arrived in the Japanese islands. A lot of other kinds of studies are needed before accepting any local evidence for when humans first DID settle the Japanese islands.



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