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October 13, 2009

Japanese Palaeolithic Period

by Charles T. Keally

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 for ages as early as 50/40,000 years or more and others arguing that anything older than 35,000 years is invalid, either it is not of human origin or it is not dated correctly. I have strong reservations about the materials claimed to be evidence of humans in Japan before about 35,000 years ago.

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.

On June 15, 1998, I wrote here that:

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.

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.

In 1986, I joined ODA Shizuo in publishing a paper very critical of these Early and Middle Palaeolithic finds:

These criticisms were largely ignored, and the presence of humans in Japan as early as 600,000 or 700,000 years ago became accepted fact by the late 1990s. In October 2000, I discussed this material in detail in one of my classes (lecture notes).

The major claims for an EARLY PALAEOLITHIC and MIDDLE PALAEOLITHIC in Japan imploded on Sunday, November 5, 2000, with the exposure of planted artifacts on some of the sites. ( I am posting papers on the hoax on another page.) The Japanese Archaeological Association and others have re-excavated many of the sites since then, and re-examined the artifacts from many other sites. In May 2002, the Association reported that the evidence made it impossible to use any of the materials from the Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites associated with FUJIMURA Shin'ichi, the person caught planting artifacts on some of the sites. The JAA issued its final report in May 2003, concluding that the re-excavated sites and re-examined materials indicated a very high probability that Fujimura had planted artifacts on all 186 sites he was associated with (Nihon Kokogaku Kyokai 2003).

There are still a few other claims for pre-35,000-year sites on the table for discussion, but so far none has received wide acceptance. ( I am posting papers on these sites on another page.)

May 24, 2009

Recent Ideas about the First Settlement of the Japanese Islands

A symposium held at the Tokyo Metropolitan University on February 7, 2009, left the question of the date of the first settlement of the Japanese islands still without a general consensus. But this symposium, titled " Environmental Change and Archaeology in Eastern Asia During IOS 3" (Ono Akira, coordinator), did seem to agree that the evidence available at this time suggests the first settlement of the islands occurred about 38 ka calBP (38,000 years ago) or more recently. The first settlement probably occurred during the later part of the 30,000 year span of IOS 3 [which dates roughly 64-32 ka BP].

  • Kudo, Yuichiro. (2009). Shinpojiumu "Higashi Ajia he no Shinjin no Kakusan to OIS3 no Nihon Retto" Kaisai Hokoku [Report on the Symposium: Dispersal of Anotomical Modern Humans into Eastern Asia and the Japanese Islands during IOS3]. Daiyonki Tsushin [QR Newsletter], 16(2): 11-13. (Nihon Daiyonki Gakkai [Japan Association for Quaternary Research]) (in Japanese)

The Japanese LATE PALAEOLITHIC has been recognized since the excavation of the Iwajuku site north of Tokyo in 1949. There are now (Sept. 27, 2009) over 10,000 known sites that belong to this period in Japan. Large excavations since the late 1960s have provided massive amounts of data and given a detailed picture of the chronology and regional variations throughout this culture spanning the last glaciation.

Traditions Phases Dates
Pebble & Flake Tool Phase Ia 35,000-27,000 B.P.
Phase Ib 27,000-23,000 B.P.
Phase Ic 23,000-21,000 B.P.
Backed-Tool Phase IIa 21,000-16,000 B.P.
Phase IIb 16,000-13,000 B.P.
Microlithic Phase III 13,000-12,000 B.P.
Bifacial Projectile Point Phase IV 12,500-11,000 B.P.
Incipient Jomon 13,000-9500 B.P.

October 13, 2009

Another Idea about the Palaeolithic Cultural Chronology

Kudo Yuichiro has proposed the following chronology for the end of the Late Palaeolithic and the beginning of the Jomon Period in eastern Honshu Island, based on nearly 90 calibrated radiocarbon dates from over 20 sites. This chronology spans the dates from about 24,000 to about 11,000 years calBP.

1. Backed point industry 23,000-20,000 calBP
2. Point industry 21,000-19,000 calBP
3. Microblade industry 18,000 (20,000)-15,000 calBP
4. Biface industry & Plain pottery group 17,000-15,000 calBP
5. Slender-clay-ridges pottery group 15,000 (16,000)-14,000 (13,000) calBP
6. Crescent-impressed & cord-marked pottery group 13,500-11,500 calBP
7. Cord-wrapped-stick pattern pottery group 11,000 calBP and later
  • Kudo, Yuichiro. (2005). The Temporal Correspondence between Archaeological Chronology and Environmental Changes in the Final Pleistocene in Eastern Honshu Island. Daiyonki Kenkyu [The Quaternary Research], 44: 51-64. (in Japanese with English summary)

Palaeolithic sites are usually hard to find from the surface, hence a large proportion are found during excavation. But most archaeologists in Japan are not interested in the Palaeolithic, and many do not excavated these deeper strata, even during contract excavations. Palaeolithic archaeology accounts for only about 2% of all the excavation work and publication in Japan.

Right from the beginning of the Late Palaeolithic, all sites show extensive evidence of tool manufacture and of the use of exotic materials--in sharp contrast to the total or nearly total lack of such evidence in sites in Japan claimed to be older than 35,000 years. EDGE-GROUND AX-LIKE TOOLS also occur in some of the earliest sites of this period. But flake tools and various pebble tools predominate from 35,000 to about 23,000 years ago. These artifacts show some similarities to materials of the same age in North China, but overall this culture gives the impression of being a pioneering culture. Sites older than about 23,000 years ago are all on the three southern main islands of Japan; no convincing (to me) sites older than this are reported on the northern island of Hokkaido.

A huge volcanic eruption in southern Japan sometime around 24,000 (or 22,000) years ago spread a distinctive ash, the Aira-Tanzawa (AT) tephra, across most of the country, making it possible to date sites everywhere in Japan "before or after AT." About the same time, the first truly KNIFE-SHAPED STONE TOOLS show up, a backed tool made on a blade-flake. From that time on, pebble tools become progressively less important, and small, well-made tools, especially the knife-shaped tools, become progressively more important, until around 16,000 years ago when the pebble tools all but disappear from the sites. The small tools of chert and obsidian, or hard shale, that predominate between 16,000 and about 13,000 years ago show considerable resemblance to tools of the same age in northeastern Asia and in Europe. The tools from sites in the northernmost island, Hokkaido, are almost identical to those in the Russian Far East and Siberia.

The distinctive Northeast Asian MICROBLADES AND CORES are found in Hokkaido from about 15,000 years ago, and in Tokyo and western Japan from around 13,000 or 12,000 years ago. These mircrolithic sites are all non-ceramic except the later ones on the southern island of Kyushu, such as the famous Fukui Cave site. Large bifacial FOLIATE POINTS are found with microcores in much of northern Japan, but they seem to post-date the microcores in the Kanto region around Tokyo.

Occasionally a few potsherds are found with these BIFACIAL POINTS in the east, where they are dated 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. But the LINEAR-RELIEF POTTERY, the oldest clear style and the one found with microcores in Fukui Cave, seems to appear only as the bifacial points evolve into small stemmed points that could be arrowheads. This period between about 13,000 and 10,000 years ago is one marked by rapid change and considerable regional variation; it also is one very difficult to date. Consequently, the crucial period of transition from the Palaeolithic to the Jomon is still very unclear.

The ENVIRONMENT during the Late Palaeolithic was cool to cold, as it was in other presently temperate zones elsewhere in the world. At the peak of the glacial cold around 21,000-18,000 years ago, tundra covered much of Hokkaido in the north. Most of the rest of eastern and central Japan was covered by a boreal coniferous forest. Western Japan from the Kanto Plain around Tokyo to Kyushu was covered with a temperate coniferous forest. Nauman's elephants and Yabe's elks roamed much of this forest. Moose, brown bear, steppe bison and aurochs were among the many large animals that lived in the forests of eastern and northern Japan, along with a generally Arctic fauna.

What the Late Palaeolithic peoples in Japan did for FOOD is still little more than a guess. Only the Lake Nojiri site has yielded artifacts in association with possible food remains -- Nauman's elephants and Yabe's elks -- but even there the evidence that these bones represent human kills is far from convincing. Also, there is little research into use-wear on the artifacts, so we have no valid idea of how the various tools were used. I feel the size of the tools argues for smaller animals rather than larger (huge) animals as the main focus of hunting.

For interpreting OTHER ASPECTS OF BEHAVIOR, we have only the stone tools, fire-cracked rocks, stone materials, and the distributions of artifacts within the sites and of sites across the landscape. Source analyses of stone materials show wide-spread movement of stone, either through trade or high mobility of the people. Obsidian from Kozu Island south of Tokyo appears in sites from the beginning of the Late Palaeolithic, demonstrating that these people had the ability to cross rather wide stretches of sea. Most sites were occupied for short periods of time -- a few days to a few weeks or months -- and then not used again for 1,000s of years, suggesting considerable mobility in settlement pattern. There is no good evidence of solid structures for dwellings, although there are a few claims for pit-dwellings. And the only known burials and body decorations both date to near the end of the Late Palaeolithic, in a site in southwestern Hokkaido.

The only HUMAN SKELETONS unquestionably belonging to this period come from sites in the Okinawan chain, extending far to the south of the main Japanese islands (Table of Fossils). But artifacts from this region are not convincing, and the islands seem to have been abandoned by humans for several thousand years after the end of the Palaeolithic. I do not feel these skeletons provide particularly useful evidence for the humans living in the main islands of Japan during the Palaeolithic.

Transition from Palaeolithic to Jomon

The change from the "Palaeolithic" culture to the "Jomon" culture is a gradual transition. There is no hint of a clear break, or disconformity, between the two cultures in either the cultural materials or the dates. This transition occurs over a period of several cultural phases and 8,000 to 14,000 years, depending on how narrowly or broadly one looks at the "transition" (Kudo 2005; Keally, Taniguchi & Kuzmin 2003).

The last clearly "Palaeolithic" cultural phases are distinguished by (1) knife-shaped stone tools and (2) stone points (or projectile points). These two phases date about 23-19 ka calBP.

The narrowly defined "transition" occurs across three cultural phases, distinguished by (1) microblades and microcores, (2) the Mikoshiba-Chojakubo group of stone tools with small amounts of plain pottery, and (3) linear-relief pottery. The Mikoshiba-Chojakubo group of stone tools includes large ax- or adz-like tools and large foliate projectile points. Arrowheads are present but rare. The Linear-relief Pottery phase stone tools include axes, and querns and grinders. Arrowheads are common in these sites. Microblades and microcores are distinctive of many Linear-relief Pottery sites in western Japan; stemmed projectile points are distinctive of Linear-relief Pottery sites in eastern Japan. But pottery is scarce in all sites of these phases. These three cultural phases date about 18(20)-14(13) ka calBP.

The first "Jomon" cultural phase is distinguished by punctate-marked pottery, nail-impressed pottery and cord-marked pottery. The details of the pottery sequence are not clear, and pottery is generally still scarce in the sites. Stone tools include arrowheads, and querns and grinders, but much is still not clear about the tool assemblages of this phase. This first "Jomon" phase dates about 13.5-11.5 ka calBP.

But the truly "typical" Jomon culture begins from about 11.5 ka calBP, with what is called the Yoriitomon Pottery phase in the Kanto Region, and with the radical increase in the quantities of pottery found in the sites and the first appearance of shellmounds.

Stages Phases Oda & Keally 1979 Dates
end Late Palaeolithic Knife-shaped Tools Phase IIb early 23-20 ka calBP
Stone Points Phase IIb late 21-19 calBP
transition Palaeolithic to Jomon Microblades Phase III 18(20)-15 ka calBP
Mikoshiba-Chojakubo Phase IV (plain pottery) 17-15 ka calBP
Linear-relief Pottery Incipient Jomon (1) 15(16)-14(13) calBP
first Jomon Nail-impressed Pottery Incipient Jomon (2) 13.5-11.5 calBP

The following are some useful references on the Japanese Palaeolithic.

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