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2. The Earliest Humans and Migration into the Ryukyus

Fragmentary human remains discovered in a cave at Yamashita-cho [山下町] near Naha indicate human habitation some 32,000 years ago. Human remains found at Pinza Abu cave [ピンザアブ洞] in Miyako are dated as 27,000 years old. Early fossil discoveries also include animal species that have long been extinct throughout most of the Ryukyus, like deer, wild cat (a variant species still exists in Iriomote, though in dwindling numbers, and in Amami) and even elephant. The oldest largely complete set of human remains were recovered from a limestone fissure at Minatogawa in the southern Okinawa Island village of Gushikami in the 1960's and have been carbon-dated at 18,000 years old. Human remains discovered more recently in the Shiraho-Saonetabaru Cave [白保竿根田原洞穴] on Ishigaki Island may end up being closer to 20,000 years old but research is ongoing (Footnote 1). Overall, what we don’t know about the earliest arrivals is considerably greater than what we do.

What we understand about early human habitation in the Ryukyu archipelago comes from human remains recovered at archeological digs followed by anthropological research to compare them to those found in other regions of Asia. Conclusions based on this kind of research are necessarily fragile since earlier remains found at a newly-discovered site might lead scholars in another direction. Bearing this fact in mind, the dominant current theory is that the first arrivals into the Ryukyus (and Japan) were early-Mongoloids who came through Southeast Asia via land bridges and into the Ryukyu archipelago (Footnote 2). This does not mean that the Southeast Asian route was exclusive. Early-Mongoloids of the same period could also have entered the Ryukyus via Korea and then down through Kyushu.

As one example, anthropologist Christy Turner identified the dentitions of the so-called Minatogawa Man [港川人] as having Sundadont features rather than the Sinodont features found widely throughout northeast Asia, including Japan (Footnote 3). Additionally, forays into the Ryukyus from Southeast Asia are certainly aided by the existence of the Kuroshio ocean current that today brings us our summertime typhoons.

It is thought that genetic traces of Minatogawa-era arrivals are still found in contemporary Ryukyuans and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Ainu people of Hokkaido (whose dentitions are also characterized as possessing Sundadont rather than Sinodont features). A sensible theory would be that later mass Mongoloid arrivals from Northeast Asia into Japan via the Korean Peninsula at the end of the last glacial period pushed earlier settlers out of Kyushu towards the southern and northern peripheries. This view is consistent with anthropologist Hanihara Kazurou’s ‘Dual Structure Model of the Japanese People [二重構造モデル] (Footnote 4).’ There is a string of islands stretching down into the northern Ryukyu Islands from the tip of Kyushu that would have been well known by local fisherfolk.

The predominant culture throughout the Ryukyus for many thousands of years, as everywhere else, was hunter-gatherer. While there is disagreement amongst scholars with regard to the origins of domesticated rice in China we can put this in the broad ballpark area of 7,000-5,000 BCE (Footnote 5). From China, rice cultivation spread out into southeast Asia and western Asia at some point between 3,000-2,000 BCE and, eventually, to Japan. The Yayoi Period [弥生時代] (300 BCE to 300 CE) in Japanese history is commonly regarded as the time when agriculture, and specifically wet field rice cultivation, took root. Rice was introduced to Japan along with the mass arrival of a new wave of Mongoloids from Northeast Asia (with dentitions characterized as possessing Sinodont rather than Sundadont features) via Korea, as mentioned above.

The long hunter-gather period in the northern Ryukyu Archipelago stretches from 10,500 BCE through to about 200 CE and encompasses the initial, early and middle phases of the ‘Kaizuka Jidai’ or Shellmound Period [貝塚時代早期・前期・中期]. The late Shellmound Period continues from 200 CE through to about 1,000 CE, but during this era there is a gradual shift away from hunter-gatherer culture to the adoption of agriculture although the former would persist in tandem with agriculture until fully supplanted by the latter and people began settling in proximity to their fields. It is thought that rice cultivation, and perhaps even dry field cultivation may have begun in Okinawa as early as 200 CE (Footnote 6).

While the earliest arrivals into the Ryukyu Archipelago are currently believed to have come from Southeast Asia, archaeological findings have been unable to reveal how many waves of migrants there were from this direction or give any idea of the number of people involved. Isolated fragments of human remains or evidence of their activities, whether 32,000 or 18,000 years old, leave us with more questions than answers. More revealing archaeological evidence of human migration and human activity in the Ryukyus is found by examining pottery recovered from several places in Amami and Okinawa. Discovery of thumb-nail or Tsumegata-type [爪形文] Jomon Era pottery shows migration into these areas 6,500-7,000 years ago. By this time, the land bridges had long gone and there was a pronounced separation between the northern Ryukyu island groups of Amami and Okinawa from the southern island groups of Yaeyama and Miyako. 20,000 years ago it is estimated that the water temperature in the region had been around 8-12 degrees celsius but by 6.000 years ago risen closer to 17-20 degrees (Footnote 7).

Almost all subsequent migration into the northern Ryukyus was now down through the string of islands stretching from Kyushu to Amami and later as far as Okinawa itself. Sobata-style [曽畑] pottery from Kyushu found in Amami and Okinawa is evidence of migration 5,000 years ago, and later Omonawa (面縄) pottery also made in Kyushu is evidence of continuing migration into Amami and Okinawa 3.500 years ago. While archaeologists continued to find plenty of Jomon (14,000 BCE to 300 BCE) artifacts in the northern Ryukyus there were far fewer discoveries of Yayoi era artifacts. At a certain point in time into the Yayoi era, therefore, it may be logically surmised that migration into the Amami and Okinawa regions from the north slowed considerably, most likely when agriculture took solid root in Kyushu and settled culture gradually replaced mobile culture. It is from this point that northern Ryukyu also entered a period of settled evolution and began to develop separately from Kyushu and Japan. Linguistically, though the the Ryukyuan and Japanese languages today are mutually unintelligible scholars have pointed out that there are many similarities between vocabulary used in Ryukyuan with that found in ancient Japanese. Linguist Hattori Shirou [服部四郎] thought that a separation between Japanese and Ryukyuan may have occurred at some point between 200-300 CE and 500-600 CE (Footnote 8).

The southern island regions of Yaeyama and Miyako are geographically separated from Okinawa Island by a 260 kilometer stretch of island-free ocean. It is thought that because of this effective ocean barrier the Yaeyama and Miyako regions for a very long period were part of a southern cultural sphere that included Taiwan and the Philippines and that the northern island regions of Okinawa and Amami have far closer cultural ties with Kyushu and Japan (Footnote 9). It is clearly the case that access from the northern Ryukyus to Kyushu is much easier because of a string of islands between both areas that would have been well known to local fisherfolk.


Footnotes for 1-2. The Earliest Humans and Migration into the Ryukyus

(Footnote 1) RYOHEI NAKAGAWA, NAOMI DOI, YUICHIRO NISHIOKA, SHIN NUNAMI, HEIZABURO YAMAUCHI, MASAKI FUJITA, SHINJI YAMAZA, 'Pleistocene human remains from Shiraho-Saonetabaru Cave on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, Japan, and their radiocarbon dating,' Anthropological Science, Vol 118 (3), 2010.

(Footnote 2) (国立科学博物館) National Museum of Nature and Science http://www.kahaku.go.jp/special/past/japanese/ipix/3/index.html

(Footnote 3) Richard Pearson, 'The Place of Okinawa in Japanese Historical Identity' in Donald Denoon, Mark Hudson, Gavan McCormack and Tessa Morris-Suzuki (Editors), Multicultural Japan: Palaeolithic to Postmodern. Cambridge University Press (2001), page 104.

(Footnote 3) See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinodonty_and_Sundadonty

(Footnote 4) A diagram of Hanihara’s model can be found at the following URL: http://www.geocities.jp/ikoh12/kako_no_page_no_syoko/001honnronn_01.html

(Footnote 5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice#Asia

(Footnote 6) Richard Pearson, 'The Place of Okinawa in Japanese Historical Identity' in Donald Denoon, Mark Hudson, Gavan McCormack and Tessa Morris-Suzuki (Editors), Multicultural Japan: Palaeolithic to Postmodern. Cambridge University Press (2001), page 96.

(Footnote 7) (国立科学博物館) National Museum of Nature and Science http://www.kahaku.go.jp/special/past/japanese/ipix/3/3-06.html

(Footnote 8) Sakihara Mitsugu, ‘History of Okinawa’ in Ethnic Studies Oral History Project, United Okinawan Association of Hawaii, Uchinanchu, A History of Okinawans in Hawaii (Honolulu: Ethnic Studies Program, University of Hawaii at Manoa , 1981), pages 4-5.

(Footnote 9) 安里進、土肥直美, 沖縄人はどこから来たか: 琉球=沖縄人の起源と成立 (Uchinanchu wa doko kara kitaka? Ryuukyuu-Uchinanchu no Shigen to Seiritsu - Where do Okinawans come from? The Origins and Formation of the Ryukyuan-Okinawan People). 那覇:ボーダーインク,1999, page 43.

(Footnote 9) See also: 小田静夫 [Oda Shizuo], 琉球弧の考古学 -南西諸島におけるヒト・モノの交流史-. http://ao.jpn.org/kuroshio/hitomono/index.htm

Further References for The Earliest Humans and Migration into the Ryukyus

Sakihara Mitsugu, A Brief History of Early Okinawa based on the Omoro Soshi. Tokyo: Honpo Shoseki Press, 1987. Chapter 3, pages 42-97.

Hanihara Kazuro, “The Origin of the Japanese in Relation to Other Ethnic Groups in East Asia”, in Richard Pearson (Ed), Windows on the Japanese Past: Studies in Archaeology and Prehistory, Centre for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1986.

Pearson, R.J., editor (1969). Archaeology of the Ryukyu Islands: A Regional Chronology from 3000 BC to the Historic Period, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Mark Hudson, Ruins of Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.


Ancient Japan: Jomon and Yayoi




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