Dirt and Japan's Early Palaeolithic Hoax

Home | Index by Charles T. Keally

This paper has been submitted for publication in Sophia International Review no. 24, 2002. This journal can be obtained at:
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1. The General Story of Dirt and the Hoax

Archaeologists dig dirt. They dig dirt in order to find the basic information for understanding the human past. Archaeologists also get a lot of valuable information for their research from a broad range of disciplines spanning the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. But first and foremost, archaeologists dig dirt.

It would seem to be simple common sense, then, that all archaeologists would understand dirt. Yet today Japan is facing the extreme likelihood that it soon will be recognized worldwide as the scene of one of the world's greatest archaeological hoaxes. All because its leading archaeologists did not understand dirt -- and would not listen to a couple of unimportant archaeologists who did, or to leading geologists who did.


In archaeology, dirt is the geological deposits and soils that hold the remnants of past humans and their cultures: their activities, societies, beliefs and thoughts. Deposits are dirt that accumulates on the surface of the earth in a variety of ways and in a variety of environments. Soils are dirt that developes below the surface through various agents that penetrate the deposits. The deposits and soils are always subject to disturbance by a wide variety of natural agents -- frost, moles, worms, plant roots, earthquakes, erosion, landslides, and many others. I will come back to dirt in more detail, but, first, what is the hoax?


The Hoax:
The existence of humans in Japan earlier than about 30-35 ka (ka means thousand years), the Early Palaeolithic (or Early and Middle Palaeolithic), has always been controversial.note 1 Until 1980, none of the claims for Early Palaeolithic artifacts were widely accepted; most were accepted by minorities of only one or two archaeologists. But from 1980, a group of young archaeologists in Miyagi Prefecture began to report finds of artifacts there that they claimed were both definitely human artifacts and securely in geological strata older than 35 ka (Okamura & Kamata 1980). Within a few years, these artifacts and dates had already received rather wide acceptance as the first unquestionable Early Palaeolithic finds in Japan.note 2

There were a few dissenting voices (Oda 1985; Oda & Keally 1986; see also Oda 2001, p. 13, and Oda's comments in "Nihon Genjin" 1983), but these were quickly stamped out by the leaders in Japanese archaeology, and after that ignored. By the early 1990s, the Early Palaeolithic in Japan was effectively accepted as national fact. The new finds were big news several times every year,note 3 and the artifacts were on exhibit in the country's best national and prefectural museums. By 1998, some of the sites were discussed in school textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education (Okamura 2001, p. 47).

New sites were discovered annually. And these were getting progressively older -- 500 ka, 600 ka, and finally 700 ka. Evidence of huts or shelters was reported at 300-500 ka. Hafted stone tools were reported at 400 ka. And small caches of stone tools were reported at 600 ka. All these new Japanese Early Palaeolithic finds showed human technological and cognitive abilities developing several hundred thousand years earlier in Japan than in other regions of the world. In the late 1990s, Japanese archaeologists effectively were rewriting the story of human evolution.

These finds held tremendous significance for the international community of scholars studying human origin's and evolution -- although they do not seem to have noticed. The results of decades of research by leading scholars in Africa, Europe, Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia and China were being completely overturned.

Despite this, not a single dissenting voice could be heard above the din of acceptance in Japan. After all, these artifacts were unquestionably human products. True. And the dates given for the geological deposits they were found in were reasonably accurate. True. But a very serious flaw in these Japanese Early Palaeolithic finds was being missed simply because even the leading archaeologists in the country did not understand dirt.

However, one young and rather infamous Palaeolithic archaeologist was already asking the significant question about dirt at academic conferences and as comments to newspapers from 1981 (see Oda 2001, p. 13) -- and was being ignored. In 1985, he put this question about dirt into print in an interview published in a well read and respected scientific magazine (Oda 1985, p. 28). And in 1986, he and I put this question into print in one of Japan's best peer-reviewed academic journals (Oda & Keally 1986, pp. 342-345). That article created quite an uproar -- briefly. Leading archaeologists criticized us to our faces, telling us our ideas were wrong and we should not put such strongly critical statements into print. But no one ever published a detailed rebuttal to our criticisms, and all that we said was soon largely forgotten.

Then, fourteen years later, on November 5, 2000, Mainichi Shimbun revealed that it had caught Fujimura Shin'ichi planting artifacts on two of these Early Palaeolithic sites (Kyusekki 2000). Since then, the whole Japanese Early Palaeolithic structure built since 1980 has crumbled.


Dirt Again:
Now back to dirt. The significant question Oda and I were asking was about dirt. Why did these Early Palaeolithic artifacts not show any vertical displacement in the dirt? Why were they instead found lying flat on the surfaces of the geological strata? This question was significant, and NO archaeologist should have missed its significance.

Most geological deposits accumulate slowly over decades or centuries, millimeter by millimeter, centimeter by centimeter. During that time, the deposits -- and any artifacts in them -- are constantly being churred up by moles, frost, grass roots, tree roots, burrowing animals, worms, ants, over-turned trees, and many other natural agents. Rarely does a single event deposit enough material at one time to seal the remnants of human activity safely away from these disturbing agents. Vizualize Pompeii versus your yard.

Everyone who ever paid attention has seen frost sink a pebble out of sight in the flower garden. Everyone has seen tree roots warp and move sidewalks. Those little piles of dirt out on the grass in the park are moles -- moving "artifacts" around. And most people have seen a tree uprooted by a typhoon. Did you notice the little pebbles and other "artifacts" pulled up with the roots?

There cannot be an archaeologist in Japan who has not excavated a site with tree roots tangled deeply down into the cultural materials, pushing artifacts this way and that. And most archaeologists have seen moles moving artifacts around even as the modern humans excavated. By the time I had learned how to spell "archaeology" (or is it "archeology"?) correctly, I had already learned how worms, tunneling under a large rock for decades, can eventually sink it below the surface, like the frost does with little pebbles in your garden.

How is it possible, then, that so many archaeologists could not see there was something wrong with these Early Palaeolithic sites yielding artifacts that exhibited no evidence of disturbance by moles, roots, frost, and other natural agents?

One way is that they deluded themselves with wholly unscientific explanations for the phenomenom. Some archaeologists simply said "that's the way it is" and never questioned what they saw. Others said the artifacts were sealed by a thick single-event deposit. But the excavation reports all showed this to be false. I even heard one archaeologist claim there were no moles or trees in that region during the Early Palaeolithic, 650,000 years with greatly varying climate. Yet he had no evidence to support his claim. In fact, what evidence I have seen at sites he excavated contradicts him. And others point out that there is in fact some vertical displacement, about 5 or 10 cm. But this is far less than expectable, based on the evidence from the hundreds of Late Palaeolithic and Jomon sites I have examined.

These archaeologists did not seem bothered by the fact that this lack of vertical displacement of artifacts was unique to the Early Palaeolithic sites. Or, is it possible, they did not know that all Late Palaeolithic, Jomon and younger archaeological sites manifest varying degrees of vertical displacement in the artifacts? Yes, that lack of understanding does seem possible. It actually seems possible that a lot of archaeologists do not understand dirt, do not know that artifacts get moved around in the dirt.

I can only speculate why archaeologists in Japan have so little knowledge of something -- dirt -- that seems so obviously to be fundamental to their research. But all the evidence I have suggests that, in fact, a large percentage of archaeologists here do not understand what happens to artifacts in the ground before the archaeologist unearths them. And, now, as a result of that lack of knowledge, Japan is facing the very real prospect that it will be put in the record books as the place where one of the largest archaeological hoaxes of the 20th century occurred.

Here we need to ask seriously, Is it possible that much of the rest of Japanese archaeological "fact" and interpretation is no more illuminated by intelligence than the "facts" that allowed this massive hoax to go on for 20 years? I hope not, but I do know for certain that a considerable amount of nonsense about the Japanese past does get published in academic journals as sound scientific fact or interpetation. And this nonsense often gets a good airing in the news media and frequently also in the nation's school textbooks.

And, if something like this hoax can occur in archaeology, what should we think about the quality of the work in other academic disciplines in the same country?

The Japanese Early Palaeolithic hoax is not something that occurred far off in an isolated corner of an isolated discipline -- archaeology -- of Japanese academia. Japan's Early Palaeolithic research takes place very much in the context of Japanese scholarship and society in general. This hoax has very serious implications for how the outside world will view the quality of Japanese archaeological research. It also might have serious implications for how the outside world will view the quality of Japanese academic research in general. And it also certainly gives us insights into the workings of Japanese education and society.


2. More Detailed Stories of Dirt and the Hoax

The Zazaragi Site:
The Zazaragi Site in northern Miyagi Prefecture is generally said to be the site that closed the controversy about the existence of humans in Japan earlier than 30-35 ka.note 1 The Jomon and Late Palaeolithic strata at this site were excavated in 1976 and 1979 (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1978, 1981).

In 1980, artifacts were picked from the road cutting by the site, from a stratum thought to be older than 35 ka (Okamura & Kamata 1980, p. 4). The third excavation at Zazaragi, from September 28 to October 16, 1981, dug these older strata (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1983). Artifacts were found on the surfaces of Stratum 13 and Stratum 15, which both date around 41-43 ka (Ichikawa 1983, p. 96; Koshimizu 1983, p. 99).

The report on the geology of the site (Shoji, Yamada & Takahashi 1983)note 4 is not clear if it is describing the deposits at the excavation site or only in cuttings in the vicinity of the site. But it clearly says that the Early Palaeolithic deposits (Strata 12 to 15, the Yasuzawa Lower Ash) are weathered pumice, a volcanic ash that flies in on the wind, and that these strata are clearly a suitable environment for human habitation (Shoji, Yamada & Takahashi 1983, pp. 91-92). This geology report goes on to say that the weathering of these Early Palaeolithic strata indicates these deposits were laid down during a relatively warm period (Shoji, Yamada & Takahashi 1983, pp. 85, 93).

However, a Ministry of Education sponsored research project in the early 1980s studied these same deposits and made a preliminary report in 1983 saying that Strata 12 to 15 at Zazaragi were a single-event pyroclastic flow -- white hot volcanic ejecta -- that could not possibly contain cultural artifacts (that report is no longer available to me). This conclusion was made clear in the final report on that research in 1984 (Machida et al. 1984, p. 906).

By 1984, Oda Shizuo, who was part of the research team for this report, was telling academic conferences and the press that the lower strata at Zazaragi were a pyroclastic flow and could not contain artifacts (see Oda 2001, p. 13). He repeated this in a published interview in 1985 (Oda 1985, p. 28). And Oda and I said it clearly again in a peer-reviewed academic journal in 1986: "Stratum 13 is the undisturbed(?) Lower Yasuzawa Pyroclastic Flow...Geological data suggest that Zazaragi Stratum 15 is part of a pyroclastic flow..." (Oda & Keally 1986, p. 333). This 1986 report caused a lot of commotion when it first came out, but it had no lasting effect.

The geological Quaternary Research Society held its annual meeting in Sendai in 1988. On August 19, the guided tour of geologists and archaeologists visited the Zazaragi site. I was there. Soda Tsutomu, a geologist, explained in detail why Zazaragi Strata 12 to 15 had to be interpreted as a single-event pyroclastic flow. Emminent geologists agreed fully with Soda's explanation. But the excavators of the Zazaragi site bluntly said they disagreed with this geological opinion.

I told one of the emminent geologists that the geologists really needed to press this fact that the Zazaragi Early Palaeolithic strata were a single-event pyroclastic flow that could not contain cultural materials. He responded that this was an archaeological problem, not a geological problem.

At the Quaternary Research Society's conference in Sendai two days later, on August 21, Soda repeated his view that the lower strata at Zazaragi were a single-event pyroclastic flow (Soda 1988). Concerned archaeologists were there and listening. But none of them changed his (they are all males) mind about the Zazaragi Early Palaeolithic finds. Soda again put his explanation into print in the Quaternary Research Society's journal, Daiyonki Kenkyu, in 1989 (Soda 1989, pp. 269, 279-280). All Palaeolithic archaeologists should have been reading this academic journal. But this report, too, had no effect on the archaeologists' thinking. And so the hoax continued for another 12 years.

Zazaragi was registered as a designated national historic site on July 28, 1997 (Cultural Affairs Agency, pers. comm., November 29, 2001).


Vertical Displacement and the Nakazanya Site:
Vertical displacement refers to the vertical movement of artifacts in the ground (dirt) during the centuries and millennia after humans settled on a site and left behind material remains (artifacts) on what was then surface of the earth. Over time, various natural agents (as discussed above) cause some artifacts to sink into the dirt beneath that surface. As deposits accumulate on that ancient surface after the human occupation of the site, those same various natural agents pull other artifacts upwards from the ancient surface into the new deposits. (These natural agents also move artifacts horizontally from their orginal positions, but archaeologists have not yet found a satsifactory method for studying this horizontal displacement.)

Archaeologists study the vertical displacement of artifacts because the goal of archaeology is to understand the lifeway of a face-to-face group of humans who lived on the site in the past. When a site has been occupied more than once in the past -- which is normal -- vertical displacement often mixes the artifacts left by different face-to-face groups of humans. If archaeologists do not study the vertical displacement of artifacts at the site, and thereby unscramble the mixed cultural remains, they will, in effect, be studying groups of humans who never actually existed. The prehistories they write based on such mixed remains will be science fiction rather than something resembling science fact.

Considerable vertical displacement of artifacts is seen in effectively all Late Palaeolithic (and Jomon and later) sites in Japan (Igarashi 2001). From at least the late 1970s, Japanese Palaeolithic excavation reports were routinely publishing this information, and it should be common knowledge among all archaeologists doing Palaeolithic research.

In the late 1970s, most of the information on Japan's Late Palaeolithic had been produced by large excavations on the Musashino Upland in Saitama and Tokyo and the Sagamino Upland in Kanagawa (Oda & Keally 1979). Anyone researching or writing on the Japanese Palaeolithic for the next decade or more would have to have been familiar with these reports and excavations. Most of those reports clearly illustrated the considerable vertical displacement of artifacts recorded during the excavation. Some reports even published studies of this vertical displacement.

One of the most detailed of these published studies of artifact vertical displacement in a Late Palaeolithic site is the study published in the report on the excavation of the Nakazanya site in Koganei, Tokyo (Kidder & Oda 1975, attached Fig. 1).

Twenty-seven fragments of agate could be refitted back to the original nodule from which a prehistoric stone knapper had removed them. These 27 fragments were separated in the geological strata -- the dirt -- by 110 cm, and they were mixed among artifacts from two other prehistoric occupations of the site and through five different geological strata. But there was no indication of disturbance in any of the geological strata. The fragments from other refittable stone nodules had vertical displacements ranging from 20 to 60 cm. and spanned 2-4 geological strata.

Similar studies at numerous other Late Palaeolithic sites found similar vertical displacement of the artifacts from the original surfaces on which the prehistoric human occupants had left them. These studies, especially those from sites on the Musashino and Sagamino Uplands, were well published and widely known in the late 1970s. Every qualified Palaeolithic archaeologist at that time had to know that considerable vertical displacement of artifacts was the norm in Late Palaeolithic sites. Therefore, the archaeologists excavating and writing about the Early Palaeolithic finds in Miyagi Prefecture in the early 1980s had to have realized that the lack of vertical displacement in those sites demanded caution and a very good scientific explanation before those finds could be accepted. Nevertheless, those archaeologists accepted these Miyagi Early Palaeolithic finds without questioning their lack of vertical displacement. And they also accepted these finds despite the very outspoken criticisms of Oda (1985) and Oda and Keally (1986) concerning the lack of vertical displacement in the Miyagi Early Palaeolithic sites.


The Zazaragi Site Again:
The Jomon and Late Palaeolithic deposits at Zazaragi were excavated in 1976 and 1979 (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1978, 1981). The lack of understanding of dirt that allowed the Early Palaeolithic hoax to continue for 20 more years was already apparent in the reports on these younger periods.

In 1986, Oda and I (Oda & Keally 1986, p. 342) wrote:

Reliability of Contextual Information: There seem to be serious problems with the information on artifact provenience. The artifacts are said to be in primary context, just as the prehistoric humans left them, undisturbed by tree roots, moles, and other natural agents. Okamura (pers. comm., 1986) and Kamata (pers. comm., 1986) state emphatically that there are no signs of vertical displacement of the artifacts. Yet the geological data, artifactual data, and age measurements all speak for considerable displacement of artifacts after original deposition.

(1) The cross-sectional illustrations in all of the excavation reports show tree-throws, pits, burrows, and other recent disturbances cutting through 5 to 8 strata...These must be having a good deal of effect on artifact context. In fact, the excavation reports describe artifacts coming from the disturbed matrices in old tree-throws (for example, Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1978:10-13; Sato and Saino 1982:29-30), or record groups of artifacts dispersed through several strata (for example, Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1978:16).

We went on to write (Oda & Keally 1986, p. 345):
(4) But certainly among the most serious examples of artifacts out of their original context are the drill from Zazaragi Stratum 8 (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1981:17), the cord-marked potsherd from Zazaragi Stratum 6c (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1981:56-61), and the "clay animal figure" from Zazaragi Stratum 6 (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1978:16).

(a) The drill from Zazaragi Stratum 8 obviously belongs to the Jomon period,note 5 probably Middle Jomon or later...The Zazaragi archaeologists do say that it is a "distinctly strange artifact for the Palaeolithic period" (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1981:17), and they acknowledge its similarity to Jomon drills (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1981:40). But they still do not remove it from the artifacts assigned to Stratum 8, nor do they accept the possibility that the deposits are mixed.

(b) The Zazaragi archaeologists show the identity of the Zazaragi Stratum 6c potsherd to the late Earliest Jomon sherds found abundantly in Strata 1 to 3 at that site (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1981:58). Yet they say that there is no evidence that it is the same as the later Jomon sherds (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1981:58, 61). They even go so far as to claim it is older than the linear-relief style generally thought to be the oldest pottery in Japan (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1981:61; Kamata 1984:74).

(c) And the "clay animal figure" (which actually looks like a wad of clay) from Zazaragi was found in a "shallow pit" in Stratum 8 but was assigned to Stratum 6 because the fill of the pit was thought to resemble soil from that higher stratum (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1978:16). The pit is probably a natural disturbance. Nevertheless, the Zazaragi archaeologists claim positively that this thing is the "world's second oldest clay animal figure" (Sekki Bunka Danwakai 1978:16).

It is clear in these criticisms that, from the beginning, the archaeologists who excavated and reported Zazaragi did not understand dirt. Typologically these three artifacts -- the drill, potsherd and "clay animal figure" -- were Jomon and definitely did not belong in the Late Palaeolithic strata. Their presence there should have caused the archaeologists to question the dirt. The basic understanding of dirt that any archaeologist should have would have allowed them to recognize that these artifacts had been displaced vertically by natural agents, a characteristic of most archaeological sites. But the Late Palaeolithic strata are where the archaeologists found these Jomon artifacts, so that is where they insisted these Jomon artifacts belonged in time.

Since these archaeologists did not recognize the vertical displacement of artifacts in the Jomon and Late Palaeolithic strata, they saw nothing wrong with the lack of vertical displacement in the Early Palaeolithic strata. However, they were not alone. The criticisms Oda (1985) and Oda and I (1986) made were well known at the time. But some leading archaeologists, even in the face of these criticisms, also saw no reason for caution in accepting these materials, for example, Kobayashi Tatsuo (1986, 1988). In his 1988 paper, Kobayashi did say that some (unnamed and uncited) critics claimed that these finds were not human artifacts (Kobayashi 1988, p. 23), but he had to know that that was one of our (Oda & Keally 1986) minor criticisms, and probably our least certain criticism. Kobayashi Tatsuo ranks among about a half dozen of Japan's top leading archaeologists -- there are about 6,000 professional archaeologists in Japan.


3. Conclusion:

The whole story of dirt and Japan's Early Palaeolithic hoax is far longer than what I have given here. And the whole story of the hoax already dwarfs the story of dirt, and we have not gotten anywhere near the end of that story yet. More information can be found on the Internet. Start at:



  1. Common knowledge and therefore no citation.

  2. Between 1984 and 1987, two sites, Zazaragi and Babadan A, began to appear in outlines and dictionaries of Japanese history (Okamura 2001, p. 46). In 1986, Kobayashi Tatsuo, one of Japan's leading archaeologists, published these materials as accepted fact (Kobayashi 1986).

  3. See the republished news clippings in the monthly magazine Gekkan Bunkazai Hakkutsu Shutsudo Joho (Monthly Information on Excavated Cultural Properties) from 1983 to 2000. For example, in 1983 the following articles were reprinted:

    Yahari Zenki Kyusekki Jidai -- Zazaragi Iseki (After All, Zazaragi is Early Palaeolithic). Kahoku Shinpo, January 24. Reprinted in Gekkan Bunkazai Hakkutsu Shutsudo Joho (Monthly Information on Excavated Cultural Properties) 4, 1983, p. 15. (in Japanese)

    5-7-man-nen Mae no Sekki Shutsudo -- Shibiki Iseki (Stone Tools 50,000 to 70,000 Years Old Found at the Shibiki Site). Mainichi Shimbun, June 17. Reprinted in Gekkan Bunkazai Hakkutsu Shutsudo Joho (Monthly Information on Excavated Cultural Properties) 8, 1983, p. 29. (in Japanese)

    Horiateta Maboroshi no Genjin (The Elusive Homo Erectus Is Found). Kahoku Shinpo, September 13. Reprinted in Gekkan Bunkazai Hakkutsu Shutsudo Joho (Monthly Information on Excavated Cultural Properties) 11, 1983, p. 33. (in Japanese)

    Tohoku ni "Genjin" ga Ita (Homo Erectus Was in Tohoku). Kahoku Shinpo, September 13. Reprinted in Gekkan Bunkazai Hakkutsu Shutsudo Joho (Monthly Information on Excavated Cultural Properties) 11, 1983, p. 34. (in Japanese)

    "Genjin no Kanosei Shimesu Kakki-teki Hakken" -- Chiso no Furusa de Suitei (Epoch-making Find Showing the Possibility of Homo Erectus -- Age Estimated by Geological Stratum). Kahoku Shinpo, September 14. Reprinted in Gekkan Bunkazai Hakkutsu Shutsudo Joho (Monthly Information on Excavated Cultural Properties) 11, 1983, p. 35. (in Japanese)

    "Nihon Genjin" Honto ni Ita ka (Was Homo Erectus Really in Japan?). Kahoku Shinpo, September 15. Reprinted in Gekkan Bunkazai Hakkutsu Shutsudo Joho (Monthly Information on Excavated Cultural Properties) 11, 1983, p. 36. (in Japanese)

  4. These authors are pedologists, not geologist.

  5. This statement was based on the chronology of stone drills suggested by those illustrated in the excavation reports from 12 sites in Miyagi Prefecture.


References Cited


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