Mammoths, Siberian lions, Naumann’s elephants, moose, Great Elks, Yabe’s giant deer, wild cattle, bison, asses, horses, bears, wolves, tigers roamed the Paleolithic landscape in Japan … until around 12,000 years ago when they suddenly disappeared.
Big-horned elk (left) and Stegodon (right) fossils (Kawasaki City Youth Science Museum)
Did you know that five different species of elephants once inhabited Japan?
Fossils of the extinct Stegodon aurorae Matsumoto (Akebono elephant and their tracks have been found in Japan as well as those of the other four species of elephants that lived in the area during the period three million years ago till about a million years ago.
Mammoths (such as the one in the photo above), however, lived only in the north and were not found outside of Hokkaido and the Sakkhalin Islands.
But from about 40,000 years ago Naumann Elephants (Paleoloxodon naumanni), big-horned elk or giant deer crossed over from the Asian continent during the ice age to Japan where it was warmer.
The climate back then was subtropical.
Models of Naumann elephants (Nojiriko Museum)
Around 35,000 years ago, people followed the movement of the animals. Hokkaido, which is an island today, was still part of the continent then, and the Tsugaru Straight between the current Hokkaido Island and the Honshu Island was deep but froze in winter, thus enabling people to travel further south.
Excavations show that prehistoric people who were living by the shores of Lake Nojiri had hunted the Naumann Elephants by driving them towards the lake or into the wetlands nearby. Furumi, at the foot of Mount Madarao, and on the shores of Lake Nojiri, has been a site of human settlement until about 30,000 years ago. Prehistoric people in Japan hunted with stone implements such as spears made from obsidian obtained from the area around Wada Pass. They also collected fruit and berries such as hazelnuts and Pinus koriaiensis.
The climate became progressively colder (until 12,000 years ago) causing larger animals to die out, although many experts believe animals such as the Naumann Elephants and giant deer were hunted to extinction (see this abstract).
Trivia Fun Facts: The first Naumann Elephant fossil ever discovered in Japan was found in Sahama-Cho, Hamamatsu city, Shizuoka prefecture. It was named after Professor Naumann to honour the former teacher of the paleontologist who discovered it. Naumann Elephants existed in East Asia and Japan from 300 thousand years ago until 15,000 years ago.
The Akebono Elephant, aka Stegodon aurorae, a member of the Stegodon Family, existed from the Late Tertiary Period to the Early Pleistocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period, long before the Naumann’s Elephants or mammoths existed. In 1975, some fossilized teeth were found in the Iruma River. Since 1985, museum staff of the Saitama Museum of Natural History discovered enough fossil teeth to restore a complete skeleton of the Akebono Elephant.
Norton, Christopher J. et al. The nature of megafaunal extinctions during the MIS 32 transition in Japan Quaternary International (2010)