Origins of the Palaeolithic people of Japan

Where did the Palaeolithic people of Japan come from? And when did they arrive?

Remains of earliest Palaeolithic people in Japan were found in Okinawa (Ryukyu islands), in Kyushu, Shikoku and Shizuoka prefecture in Central Japan.* Archaeologists are certain they did not originate in Japan and that the ancestors of the first Japanese Palaeolithic people in both the Ryukyu islands and in Kyushu and Shikoku must have come from the nearby continent to the Japanese islands from around 30,000 years ago. However, evidence from Lake Nojiri sites suggests that large mammal-hunters were present from between 33,000 to 39,000 years ago.

From the recent studies, scientists have identified two separate groups of people who could have been the ancestors of the Palaeolithic people of Japan.

The first group: ancestors of the Palaeolithic people in central Ryukyu islands

The first group is formerly thought to have originated from immigrants from South China who had migrated eastwards to Okinawa. Another popular theory is that Palaeolithic people living in South China had migrated to Southeast Asia (perhaps to Northern IndoChina) before heading north to enter Japan directly to colonize the central Ryukyu islands. Scholars used to think their view is supported because the stone tools of the Ryukyu Palaeolithic people resemble those from southern parts belong to the people from Taiwan as well as Northern Indochina in Southeast Asia.  Other scientists support the idea that because Southeast Asian populations have a peculiar but called Sundadonty tooth shape and the Paleolithic people in central Ryukyu shared this characteristic, they must have a connection. This view is shifting, as other academics now see microblade lithics technology as having come into Japan from Northeast Asia via Korea (which is consistent with Korean genetics research) in the south as well as from the Amur region in the north. It is also now thought that lithics or stone implements likely arrived from the Amur region along with pottery techniques(see Junko Habu “Ancient Jomon of Japan“, p 34). The Japanese microblades are now deemed of the Eurasian-wide microblade tradition (see Microlithization in Eurasia and The Old Stone Age of Japanese Archipelago and Siberia, with special reference to lithic use-wear analysis

Sundadont teeth notes: The front teeth are smaller and lack the “shovel” indentation on the back (that is more usual for Koreans, Chinese, and later waves of immigrant people like the Yayoi people), and the molars have a particular pattern. Ainu people, the indigenous native population in Japan, share this Sundadont characteristic.

The second group: Paleolithic ancestors of people in northern Ryukyu and Kyushu and Shikoku

On the other hand, archaeologists knew that Paleolithic people from the south or Southeast Asia had a different stone tool kit from that used by the Paleolithic people living in Kyushu and the people who lived in the North Ryukyu islands. Instead, the stone tools produced by people living in Kyushu, particularly a type of “knife”, resembled of the north like those produced on the Korean mainland. Accordingly, this meant the Paleolithic people of Kyushu should have arrived in Japan from the mainland via the Korean peninsula (and not directly from the south). However, scientists also knew that the Northern Ryukyu and Kyushu populations also shared the same Sundadonty teeth that the people from the south had. This suggested to experts that the ancestors of Kyushu and north Ryukyu islands must have originated from Southeast Asia, but had migrated back into the Northeastern part of the Asian continent, eventually entering Kyushu via the Korean peninsula.

From Kyushu, the Paleolithic people are thought to have moved, several thousand years later, to colonize Shikoku island (which has about 300 known Paleolithic excavation sites) and other parts of mainland Japan.

To find out more about the genetic origins and migratory trail of these Palaeolithic peoples, see Out of Africa to East Asia: Gleaning the genetic tale of origins and migrations from our mitochondria.

The Trail of Bones (and other things)

Important fossils have been uncovered from a total of 9 excavated sites in the Ryukyu islands. Human fossils (of Homo sapiens sapiens) of a 6 year old child from the Yamashita-cho No. 1 Cave site in Naha city, Okinawa were found in 1968. The wood charcoal that accompanied the human fossils helped to date the child called the Yamashita Dojin to 32,500 years ago. These remains astonished archaeologists because they are not only the oldest human fossils in Japan, they are the oldest fossils in Northeast Asia.

Also in the same area in Naha city, Okinawa, another set of fossil remains of 5 – 9 adults were discovered in the Minatogawa a quarry site, so archaeologists have called the key skeleton among them the Minatogawa Man.  The Minatogawa Man is radiocarbon dated to 18,250 years ago and is considered the most important fossil for telling us about who the Paleolithic people of Japan were and what they were like. The males were about 155 cm and the females about 144 cm tall.

The characteristic features of the Minatogawa man can be summarized as follows. He had a low and broad face, with narrow forehead but prominent browridge. He had a high and broad but pinched nose. He had large teeth and jaws. His brain size was small when compared to both modern and other prehistoric men in Japan. He had rather primitive-looking features like that of the fossil man called Sinanthropus.

In addition to the Minatogawa set of fossils, 7 human skeletons from the Upper Jomon Period were found at the Garumando Cave near Minatogawa. It is probable that the Minatogawa people evolved into the Jomon people of Ryukyu Islands. (Those sets of fossils startled scientists because the skeletons were evidence that the people of the time were very tall – at 160 cm – which was very close to the average Jomon skeleton’s average height at 159.1 cm).

In Kyushu, several hundred Paleolithic sites have been uncovered, but only a few have been studied and radiocarbon dating carried out. Important Kyushu sites include the Fukui Cave site where artefacts dating back to around 31,900 years ago were found. The Fukui Cave is also famous for the discovery of pottery sherds together microblade stone tools that were radiocarbon dated to 12,000 years ago. These are among the oldest pottery pieces existing in the world.

In Shikoku, the Kamikuroiwa Rock Shelter site is another very important site for the finds of tanged arrow points (from the lower layer of soil) and very old pottery (from the upper layer) that have been radiocarbon dated to 12,165 years ago.

On the mainland of Japan the skeletal remains of the Hamakita man have been found in a limestone quarry site in Hamakita city, Shizuoka prefecture in central Japan. Hamakita man’s fossils were radiocarbon dated back to 17,900 years ago. They are considered by experts to be probable ancestors of the Jomon people.

Experts speculate, after examining the Minatogawa man and comparing his features with that of other skeletons, that the ancestors of the Minatogawa man were most likely to be related to immigrants from South China (who were offspring of Mongoloid tribes in Northeast Asia), who also had relations with the Liukiang man and the Zhenpiyan man from South China, and also possibly with the Lang-Cuom and Phobinhgia man from Indochina.

Consequently by studying the Minatogawa man, other fossils and other evidence, scholars picture a time about 18,000 years or more ago, when the first Mongoloid tribes from South China, from North Indochina or Southeast Asia, entered Japan across a landbridge, then migrated to Okinawa, Kyushu and the mainland of Japan. The Minatogawa man and the Hamakita man from the mainland of Japan are considered to be either the immigrants themselves or the descendants of these immigrants.

Scientists today consider the Jomon people’s closest relations (genetically) to be the Minatogawa man, Australia’s Keilor, the Liujiang man and Zhenpiyan man of South China, and Lang-Cuom and Phobinhgia man of North Indochina. That ancestral link continues down through the ages to the Japanese populations of today.

The DNA Story: Tracing the Paleolithic family tree to the Lake Baikal area and further

Scientists have extracted the mitochondrial DNA from some human bones (some of the oldest) about 2,500 years ago from the Jomon era. Their recent research showed the mitochondrial DNA of 30 Jomon bodies was close to that of the Buryat population of southern Siberia, while DNA of only three bodies were close to that of the Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese populations. This particular mtDNA pattern can also be found today in many other Japanese women, at a ratio of one out of 10 women.

Experts have followed the trail of this mitochondrial DNA even further back time, and deep into Tibetan borders and Siberia.

Scientists now conclude that the prehistoric Japanese people and ancestors of the Jomon people originated from somewhere either Southern China or in the Tibetan region from which location they subsequently moved to the Lake Baikal area in Russia (currently called Buryatia which is known to have been inhabited as long ago as 23,000 years ago.

Back then only small tribes of paleo-asiatic stone tool using hunters had been able to survive the harsh climate of the glacial ages up to 25,000 years by living in warm pockets along Lake Baikal and other bodies of water in Siberia, India, China, as well as in the Altai mountains.

When the global climate started to warm up, some of those hunters started moving south in pursuit of large animals such as mammoths, and further to Japan (while others may have crossed the Bering straight  to reach the North American continent).

At a certain stage during the glacial age, the land of Paleolithic Japan was connected to Korea (where the Tsushima straits are today), making it possible for people to move from the Korean peninsula. Hokkaido, which is today an island, was still part of the continent, and the Tsugaru Straight between the current Hokkaido Island and the Honshu Island froze in winter, so that people from the northeastern continent were able to travel further south into Japan.

DNA research shows that the modern day populations in Okinawa and Ryukyu islands and the Ainu people in Hokkaido are genetically connected to the Jomon people.

A fuller picture of the complex origins and migration paths of East Asian people, including Jomon people, the Ainu people and the modern Japanese of today, has only just begun to be pieced together as a result of various genetic studies completed in 2009 and early 2010. To follow an outline of the latest emerging scientific views on human migration in East Asia based on mtDNA studies, see Out of Africa to East Asia: Gleaning the genetic tale of origins and migration from our mitochondria.

N-M46 a.k.a. Tat-C (Y-DNA) the most frequent subclade of N is said to have originated in central Asia reaching a maximum frequency of 90% among the Yakuts (who live in Sakha/Yakutia Republic -(Lell et al. 2002)). The haplogroup has been detected in 1.4% of Tokushima sample (Hammer 2005). 


Related readings:

Out of Africa to East Asia: Gleaning the genetic tale of origins and migrations from our mitochondria.

Closest relation of Minatogawa Man I (ancestor of Jomon population) was Australia’s Keilor, not the Chinese Liujiang Man 

Todd Surovell et al., Global archaeological evidence for
proboscidean overkill

“Early Upper Paleolithic exploitation of proboscideans (Elephas) in Asia is seen only at Lake Nojiri in Japan. This site, dating to ca. 33 k … but, importantly, it likely corresponds with the earliest occupation of Japan by Homo

Y. Nakamura, “Paleolithic cultures and paleoenvironment of the Nojiri-ko Tategahana Site, central Japan

.. the “Kill-Site” hypothesis suggested for this site in 1984, is verified on circumstantial evidence: the skull of a Naumann’s elephant was uncovered together with a spear-form wooden tool, and ribs of a Naumann’s elephant together with a bone cleaver and other bone tools. The Quaternary Research (Daiyonki-Kenkyu); ISSN:0418-2642; VOL.28; NO.4; PAGE.257-268; (1989)

Hammer, Michael F.; Karafet, Tatiana M.; Park, Hwayong; Omoto, Keiichi; Harihara, Shinji; Stoneking, Mark; Horai, Satoshi (2005). “Dual origins of the Japanese: Common ground for hunter-gatherer and farmer Y chromosomes”. Journal of Human Genetics 51 (1): 47–58. doi:10.1007/s10038-005-0322-0. PMID 16328082

野尻湖層産のナウマンゾウ化石 Fossil Remains of the Naumann Elephant from the Nojiri-ko Formation




*For a further list of human fossils from the Paleolithic period, see this chart by Keally.

3 responses to “Origins of the Palaeolithic people of Japan

  1. nice work congratulations, here in America we need an intensive archaelogycal development, there is a lot of material lost over land movement from indrustry activities.

  2. Hi,

    You must have such a passion for Japanese history, nice work.

    I have a question for you about a date regarding the pottery sherds discovered in the Fukui Cave, together with microblade stone tools that were radiocarbon dated to 12,000 years ago. Are these Jomon artifacts or random remnants of an unidentified tribe?

    If they are said to be Jomon artifacts, why I wonder does the Britannica put the Jomon culture starting no earlier than the fifth century before the common era while other references claim that it started as far back as ten thousand years? How I wonder does one know which reference to believe…

    Thank you, and great job once again!,

    • Dating of eras has been a messy affair in Japan – due to extreme conservatism, different methods and goals and confusion over calibrated radiocarbon dates vs. calendar dates… see “Bad Science and the Distortion of History: Radiocarbon Dating in Japanese Archaeology” by archaeologist Charles Keally for an excellent explanation on the dating confusion. Plus the credibility of archaeological studies in Japan was set back by one of the greatest and most embarrassing hoaxes in history perpetrated by a once respectable Japanese archaeologist Fujimura Shinichi which resulted in all his major discoveries being tainted and having to be re-investigated over again. After the incident, the news media sector turned its back on archaeologists and buried all news articles on archaeological discoveries – the trend seems to have persisted until most recently. The current consensus of the foremost archaeologists and academics on the start of Jomon is currently the same – Junko Habu’s “Ancient Jomon of Japan”‘s initial chapters deal with the evaluation of dates and the pushing back to earlier dates to 16,500 BP due to calibrated radiocarbon dates for both Fukui Cave and Odai Yamamoto pottery finds. Habu also explains that the western scepticism over dates dominated the field of archaeology from the 80s to early 90s because the total error of radiocarbon dates was relatively high then, so that J. archaeologists did not pay attention to radiocarbon dating technology – however, during that period and onwards, calibration radiocarbon technology progressed considerably and eventually became common in Western archaeology. This explains the delay in calibrated radiocarbon dates. What is not in doubt is that Jomon chronology is heavily reliant on pottery technology and classification – Habu in chapter 2: “On the basis of the associated radiocarbon date, the Fukui Cave potsherds were identified not only as the oldest Jomon pottery, but as evidence of pottery made to function as containers in the world”. I do not know why Brittanica is slow to adopt these dates – but I have found that textbooks and encyclopedias generally lag behind the media and academic journal pronouncements and news by anything from a few years to a decade – probably due to the rigours or fact-checking requirements of the research and publishing industry.
      Finally see Charles Keally’s Chronologies

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