Oldest signs of Japanese using tools uncovered in Okinawa
Feb 15, 2014 Asahi Shimbun
NAHA, Okinawa Prefecture–Archaeologists have unearthed shell tools around 20,000 years old that could help clear up mysteries surrounding the ancestors of modern Japanese people, a museum said Feb. 15.
The Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum said the shell tools–the first uncovered in Japan from the Paleolithic Age–were dug up at the Sakitari-do cave site in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture, near the site where the country’s oldest whole skeletons were found.
It was Japan’s oldest concurrent discovery of both human bones and artifacts.
Around 40 fragments of shells of the Veneridae family, ledge mussels and other species were found that are believed to have been used as tools by humans.
A human tooth and a foot bone were also found in the same geological formation. Carbon dating of charcoal from the same formation indicated the remains were 20,000 to 23,000 years old.
Also unearthed were two tusk shell fragments believed to have been used as beads, museum officials said.
The Minatogawa Man, the only known group of whole skeleton remains in Japan, was found only 1.5 kilometers south of the Sakitari-do cave site in the town of Yaese. The shell artifacts from the cave site are about as old as the Minatogawa Man.
Recent studies by the Okinawa museum have turned out 8,000-year-old earthenware–Okinawa’s oldest–and human bones and stone tools at the Sakitari-do cave site that are more than 12,000 years old.
Bones are preserved better in the typically calcareous soil of Okinawa than in the acidic soil of mainland Japan. This accounts for the large number of human bones from the Paleolithic Age found in these southern islands, while such finds are rare in the rest of the country.
Anthropologists and archaeologists had long been puzzled by the absence of artifacts accompanying Paleolithic human bones from Okinawa.
If any implements were to be found, experts had expected them to be made of stone, like those unearthed on the Japanese mainland. The shells from the cave site dramatically countered that accepted theory.
“The discovery of tools other than stone implements indicates there was cultural diversity in the Paleolithic Age,” said Shinji Yamasaki, a curator with the museum.
The latest finds also help prove the adaptive ability of prehistoric humans, who relied on a variety of readily available materials depending on their environment.
Experts have held high hopes for studies on shell artifacts used as tools to provide clues on the cultural genealogy of the ancestors of modern Japanese people. Such tools could show the influence of marine cultures of islands to the south, where the use of shells has a long tradition.
In fact, a dominant anthropological theory says the ancestors of the Japanese had southern traits in their skeletal builds, such as well-defined facial features. Some argue that Paleolithic humans traveled north by way of the sea via the Okinawa islands before arriving on Japan’s mainland and creating the Jomon culture about 12,000 years ago.
While that theory has little material evidence for support, the latest discovery could provide a push to revisit that hypothesis.
By SHUNSUKE NAKAMURA/ Senior Staff Writer