Why were some of the Yayoi coffins boat-shaped?

While preparing to build a new hospital in the Kita Ward of Nagoya, the oldest boat-shaped wooden coffin was found, circa 2000 before present, mid-Yayoi period. This boat-shaped wooden coffin is approximately 200 years older than any previously found. It is thought that a boat-shaped coffin was made to ferry the deceased to the other world, and its discovery is considered to be a major cultural artifact for understanding the afterlife beliefs of the Yayoi period. [Tr. from Mainichi article in Japanese below]

Photo: Mainichi

平手町遺跡:日本最古の舟形木棺発見 弥生中期か 名古屋

毎日新聞 2009年2月21日






Retr. Jan 6, 2011 今古ジャパン Japan Now &Then

Another large boat-shaped coffin was found in the tomb of the Ohoburo Minami Kofun-gun in Northern Kyoto, dated to the latter half of the Yayoi Period (4 B.C.-4 A.D.), containing various precious grave goods, including a beautiful cobalt blue glass bangle, an iron bangle and many iron swords. (Source: A Journey for Tango Kingdoms, The Tango Tour Guide website)

Following the Yayoi Period, the Kofun Period saw funerary boat haniwa in common use surrounding keyhole shaped tombs, and the famous tomb painting of a boat, along with representation of the sun, moon and birds resting on the boat, from the Mezurashizuka Kofun in Fukuoka, suggests that boats of the dead ritual symbolism was significant to people of those times (source: A witness to History, National Museum of History website).


Many other cultures in Southeast Asia also buried their dead in boat-shaped coffins, namely, the Xiaohe culture in Xinjiang; the Bo people (Sichuan) and Ba and related Tujia peoples of China; Minyue culture (Wuyi mountains, Fujian); the Dongson culture, Vietnam; Niah caves, Borneo. The Japanese boat-shaped coffin relics may indicate incoming migrants from one of these cultures in Southeast Asia, particularly Austronesian cultures.

Xiaohe Culture, Xinjiang boat-shaped coffins The coffins at the Xiaohe Tombs were buried in five levels, each coffin resembling an upside-down ship on the shore with the dead buried within. Live cows had been killed at the burial and their skins were used to wrap the coffins. As the skins dried and shrank, the coffins were bound increasingly tighter. The Epoch Times


Mysterious Hanging Coffins of the Bo

After more than two months of hard work, renovation of the hanging coffins of the Bo people in Gongxian County of southwest China’s Sichuan Province has now finished. This has been the biggest ever project to stabilize and conserve hanging coffins in China. 43 have been restored and 16 previously unknown coffins have been found. In the process new light has been shed on the secrets of these mysterious artifacts.

Preserving the Relics of Bo Civilization

The recent renovation of hanging coffins in Gongxian County started in September 2002. It is the third time that large-scale maintenance work has been undertaken at the site since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. The two earlier projects were in 1974 and 1985.

According to Cui Chen, curator of the Yibin Museum, hanging coffins come in three types. Some are cantilevered out on wooden stakes. Some are placed in caves while others sit on projections in the rock. All the three forms can be found in Gongxian where most of China’s hanging coffins are located.

The coffins are mainly clustered around Matangba and Sumawan where some 100 coffins are hung on the limestone cliffs to both sides of the 5,000-meter-long Bochuangou.

Survey reports from the early 1990s show Gongxian County having a total of 280 hanging coffins. However in the past 10 years or so nearly 20 have fallen. The coffins were hung at least 10 meters above the ground with the highest ones reaching 130 meters.

Unlike previous conservation work, which focused only on consolidation of the wooden stakes, this time the experts also worked on the coffins themselves. In addition they grouted the cracks in the rock where this was necessary to stabilize the limestone of the cliffs.

The Bo people have become lost in the pages of the history of human civilization. There is now some urgency in the work to salvage and protect the last somber record, which they have left us in the form of their hanging coffins.

Remains of the Bo People

On September 16, 2002 a field team composed mainly of cultural and museum specialists and technicians, went to Matangba. On September 24 they examined their first coffin hung about 20 meters above ground. Here they found the remains of one of the Bo People who had lived some 400 years ago. The skeleton was that of a tall individual. In the coffin they found sand and silt but no burial articles and Cui says this points to the possibility of theft. The coffin, weighing about 200 kg and measuring some 2.0 meters long and 0.7 meters wide, had been cut from a single log. Both the body and lid of the coffin were studded.

Members of the field team follow rigorous procedures in the cleaning, measuring, classifying and recording of each coffin. Tung oil is applied liberally to preserve the ancient timber then the remains are gently put back and the coffin is returned to the place it had occupied over all these centuries.

By the second day, five coffins had been opened. A number of precious cultural relics had come to light. These included two blue and white porcelain bowls, an iron knife notable for its unassuming simplicity, another smaller knife and two iron spear points. The experts have dated them to the Ming Dynasty.

The old records told of only 29 coffins but this time, 16 additional ones were found. These were the ones most difficult to find being located mainly in caves and concealed behind grass and bushes. While examining the coffins some silk and linen textiles were also found. The only coffin to be found on a rock outcrop was not studded like the others. The cover and body of the coffins were connected with timber fastenings.

Cliff paintings were also found. These are of great significance to the study of the lives, work, politics, military affairs and culture of the Bo People.

A Lost Culture

The Bo were an ethnic minority people living astride the borders of modern day Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. There they created a brilliant culture as early as 3,000 years ago. The ancestors of the Bo helped the Western Zhou (c.1100  771 BC) to overthrow the ruling Yin at the end of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600  1100 BC).

The Bo differed from other ethnic groups in their burial customs. Typically hewn from durable hardwood logs, their hanging coffins went unpainted. The most recent hanging coffins were made up to about 400 years ago in the middle and later periods of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), while many of the earliest ones date back 1,000 years to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). To date, the earliest hanging coffin was one found in the Three Gorges area, dating back about 2,500 years to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC- 476 BC).

The hanging coffin was the most widespread form of burial in ancient southwest China. However, the practice ended with the mysterious disappearance of the Bo People. Those who came after knew them from the hanging coffins and the paintings they left behind like faint echoes on the cliffs. Their ancient flowering of culture like that of the Maya is no more.

During the later years of the Ming Dynasty, the imperial army cruelly oppressed the ethnic minority peoples of Sichuan and Yunnan. In particular, the Duzhangman and Bo Peoples fell, victims of massacre. To escape their oppression, the Bo migrated to new locations. They hid their real names and integrated into other ethnic groups. Like their culture they have disappeared but their descendents are still here for they are a part of us.

(China.org.cn by Li Jinhui, February 10, 2003)


Mysteries About Boat of Ancient Ba People
In a book entitled Mysterious 30 Degrees North Latitude, the author has made a mystery of this special area by depicting a series of dangerous and supernatural phenomena such as the disappearance of planes and ships in Bermuda and the magical curses from Pharaoh in the Pyramids. These occurrences happened at 30 degrees north latitude, turning this area into a black hole in human knowledge.Thirty degrees north latitude crosses the Wuling Mountains of China, which span several provinces and autonomous regions and are the habitat to many people from the Tujia ethnic group. The area, with dense forest and roaring water, is believed to be the last home of the ancient Ba people. It is evident that the present Tujia people still share many customs from their Ba ancestors.Tao Yuanming, a famous poet of the Jin Dynasty (265-420), wrote an article entitled, “Peach Blossom Shangri-la” about a group of extraordinary people who lived in spectacular mountains and rivers.

Tao would be surprised to know the area he once described still remains as mystical as if he lived there today. The people he represented had long since disappeared by the time he wrote about them.

In 221 BC, General Sima Cuo of the Qin State led his army to conquer the Shu State in western Sichuan Province. He advanced his troops onward to Jianmenguan, attempting to take the Ba State in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. Several months later, the Ba State came to an end under the converging attack of Qin and Chu.

Many folk customs of the Tujia people in the Wuling mountainous area are rarely known by people. “Climbing the tree laddered with knife” is one of them. Even though performers of the act themselves can’t tell how the activity originated, they regard it as a form of entertainment today, and believe the ceremony’s significance is of interest to anthropology.

On an unearthed artifact of significance from the Ba people, graphics have been found. Most of them hard to decipher. The item found is an ancient form of a bronze musical instrument.

The boat is often found on these unearthed articles, with different boats possessing different meanings. For example, a graphic in the shape of the Chinese character “zhong” (meaning middle) in a boat’s stem may mean “sacrifice”, which might be a combination of sacrifices and sacred trees. While the symbol “+” is generally considered to represent the sun.

The sacred tree was an intermediate between human and celestials or gods. Historical documents show that the ancient Ba people offered sacrifices to both gods and spirits. For them, sacrificial activities had the same importance as war. And they believed burning sacred articles would narrow the distance between themselves and heaven.

A sacred tree excavated from the Sanxingdui Ruins and belonging to an ancient Shu State contains similar graphics to that from the Ba people. Both show a thick tree trunk, and on top, a flower design. A bird stands on the tree and the branches are stooped. According to historical records, Ba and Shu cultures had completely blended by the time of the last Shu king. In this sense, can we believe the “sacred tree” was the origin of the “knife tree” activity of today?

Ancient Egyptians thought that, “the soul of the departed could avoid ghosts if it stepped onto the big sun boat, thereby finally reaching paradise.” However, ancient Ba people endowed greater meaning to the boat’s significance.

In the 1950s, archaeologists found dozens of boat-shaped coffins in both Dongsunba of Baxian County and Baolunsi of Zhaohua in Chongqing. Wang Jiayou, who participated in the excavation, can still vividly remember the scene,

“When the boat coffins were unearthed, all the bones had disintegrated, except for the teeth. However, the burial articles enabled us to imagine the lives of the ancient Ba people. Weapons, wooden combs, pottery, remains of various fruit and dozens of lacquerware and wooden plates, all seemed to be displayed in the order of a common house.”

The ancient Ba people made boat coffins in the way they built canoes. The boat coffins were to be their home after death. They were a typical riverside people that lived with water and died in their boats. These boats therefore were to compose an important part of the history of the ancient Ba people.

Dragon boats are a symbol between the past and present and originate from the ancient ceremonies of searching for a lost soul. Today the dragon boat race can be seen everywhere in the Three Gorges area.

The designs on unearthed Ba and Shu bronze ware show large-scale boat troops of the ancient Ba people. They used ships to carry many soldiers rather than the former canoe made from one log. Today, on the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, we can still see canoes which look similar to boat coffins or are like the “sacred boat” graphics unearthed. The canoe owners live on their boats rather than farming. On cliffs on both sides of the river, many hanging coffins and boat coffins can be found. We know that the canoe owners are guarding the souls of their ancestors there.

History has recorded: “In the 7th year of Emperor Zhou He, Sima Cuo led 100,000 people of Ba and Shu states on 10,000 ships, taking with them 6 million hu‘s of rice (hu is an ancient dry measure), crossing the river to attack the Chu. They took Shangyu and renamed it Qianzhong Prefecture.”

By then, the Ba State had turned to Ba Prefecture of the Qin Dynasty. Depending on its strong boat troop and rich resources, Ba and Shu helped Qin conquer its greatest enemy: the Chu State. The Ba culture gradually disappeared in history.

A team of the ancient Ba people, on their magic canoes, entered the Wuling Mountains and brought the spirit of their ancestors there. They left, to later generations, many endless mysteries about themselves.

(CCTV.com translated by Li Jinhui for China.org.cn, May 30, 2003)

Oldest boat unearthed in China Dec 2, 2002

Chinese archaeologists have unearthed a wooden boat dating back at least 7,500 years in Xiaoshan City of east China’s Zhejiang Province.

It is the oldest boat ever discovered in China.

According to Mao, a boat dating back about 5,000 years was excavated earlier this year in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.

The newly discovered canoe confirms that the country’s boat-building history extends back an additional 2,500 years.

A four meter-wide ravine, once a silt-filled river, was also excavated near the site where the canoe was found. The canoe excavation site, also known as the Kuahuqiao ruins, contains the most ancient neolithic cultural relics in Zhejiang. Over the past decade, numerous pieces of precious pottery, stoneware and jade articles dating back 7,000 to 8,000 years have been discovered there.

(eastday.com Dec 2, 2002)

Yangtze River Three Gorges Cruises The Shennong Stream tour is exhilarating and fun. The scenery along this tributary of the Yangtze is spectacular. All along the river’s shores are signs of ancient Chinese civilization. There is much to look at: steep ridges and peaks, huge caves, thick vegetation, wild flowers, plank roads built along cliffs and the ancient hanging coffins which date back approximately 2,000 years. Ancient local inhabitants buried their dead in hanging coffins in little recesses in the sides of the cliffs. How they got the coffins to these remote areas baffles scholars to this day. Due to their high elevation, many of the coffins cannot be seen with naked eye. Now you can get a better view than ever before, because the Three Gorges Dam has been completed and the water level of the stream is now higher. these mysterious coffins are mostly found in the Three Little Gorges area along the Daning River. Several sites have also been found in the Three Gorges region. An estimated three hundred coffins in about seven locations have been investigated. The coffins are made of wood, which kept the rainwater out and protected the coffin contents from the sun.  Relics that have been excavated from the coffins include pottery, bronze vessels, enginery, cloth, and other items mostly from the ancient Ba Kingdom. A bow and arrow made of bamboo was adorned with lacquer designs, which aroused the interests of archeologists greatly.

The coffins in the caves, most of which date from the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period (770 BC-221 BC), were placed high above the water, particularly the ones found along the Daning River, with the lowest distance being 30 meters (98 feet) and the highest 500 meters (1,640 feet). With no support and backstop in the surrounding area, how the heavy coffins were placed in such a high place still remains a mystery. However, experts have speculated several feasible means by which ancient people did the great work. One theory is that the coffins were lowered down from the top of the mountain by ropes.

It was a common funeral custom in ancient times for Yangtze River people to hang coffins on the cliffs. But the intention remains controversial. One legend among the Ba people has it that a man called Wuxiang defeated his rival competing for the chief of the tribe by making a boat out of earth that would float in the water. In order to commemorate the great leader, his descendants made his coffin boat-shaped and placed it high up in the cliffs. Thus this practice was retained by later generations. But some hold that the ancient Pu nation in southern Sichuan Province is responsible for the coffins.

Further research into the enigmatic coffins has been carried out steadily; we are sure that exciting new results will enrich our knowledge of the Yangtze River civilizations greatly.



The excavation of the ruins of Min Yue Royal Cepital City opens a glorious page of Wuyi Mountain’s history. The ruins cover an area of 480000 square meters. It is the best preserved and intact ancient city ruins in the Western Han Dynasty with most historical relics ever found in south of the Yangtze River. As early as more than 4000years ago, the ancient Min Yue people laboured and lived here. Gradually, the “ancient Min Yue” culture in the remote southeastern China and the subsequent culture of the “Min yue Nationality” is formed. The remained boatshaped coffins suspended from cliffs reveal the peculiar funeral customs of of the ancient Min Yue people. The suspended coffins with the longest history ever found at home and abroad –- Wuyi boat – shaped coffins – are the most valuable materials for the study of the history in the pre-Qin period and the vanished ancient Min Yue Nationality’s culture. …

The Ancient Minyue Royal City
The Minyue Royal City is also popularly known as “the Ancient Han city”, “the Min Royal city”. It is situate at the 24 km away from the south of Wuyi Gong. The city was first built in 202 B.C when Wuzhu, the King of Minyue Kindom was bestowed with the land by Liu Ban,the first Emperor of Han Dynasty. The total area of the royal city covered 480000 km2. It was built on the mountains surrounded by waters. The city wall was 2896meters long, even now the outline of the city wall can be recognized easily. On the wall there were built city towers,beacon towers, and observation towers,and outside there were official buildings, houses, malls and graves.The “Royal palace site” in the city center was found to be featured by the enclosed complex palaces with the compact layout and good patterns. Its architectural style resembled that of Qin and Han Dynasties. But its patterns of houses were unique with the typical local style andculture. The Minyue Royal city is the best preserved Han Dynasty city in China, and it is also an important component of the world’s cultural heritage in Wuyi Mountains. It serves as a window to the lost ancient civilization in Fujian.

The Mystery of “Boat-coffin” in Wuyi Mountains

The “Boat-coffins” in Wuyi mountains can be dated back to about 3800—4000 years ago. It is the originating place of the “Boat-coffins” because of its special geographic environment and cultural history. Geographically, Wuyi mountains enjoy many high peaks, winding water, deep valleys and steep cliffs, thus forming different sizes of caves. Some are wide and round like bee cells, some like cracks are long and narrow and still others with irregular sizes of rectangles, triangles and so on. Some are deep while some shallw. These different sizes and shapes of caves not only make them mysterious but also make them the good place for “Boat-coffins“.

The Boat-coffin culture is the living fossil of Wuyi history. Drifting down the Nine-bend River you’ll find the “fairy boats” in the crevice high up on the cliffson the banks. They are the cultural heritage sites and play a great role in the research of ethnics, history and archeology.

[Retr. Jan 6, 2010 from this online source]

Similar information may be retrieved from the Wuyishan History page (see below)

Wuyishan History

Human settlement on the slopes of The Wuyi Mountains can be traced back 4,000 years by archeological remains. During the Western Han Dynasty, the ancient city of Chengcun was the capital of the Minyue kingdom. In the 7th century, the Wuyi Palace was built for emperors to conduct sacrificial activities, a site that tourists can still visit today. The mountains were an important center of Taoism and later Buddhism.

Remains of 35 academies erected from the era of the Northern Song to the Qin Dynasty and more than 60 Taoist temples and monasteries have been located. However, most of these remains are very incomplete. Some of the exceptions for which authentic remains are preserved are the Taoyuan Temple, the Wannian Palace, the Sanqing Hall, the Tiancheng Temple, the Baiyun temple, and the Tianxin temple. The area is the cradle of Neo-Confucianism, a current that became very influential since the 11th century.

Wuyi Mountain is an example of natural landscapes and historical figures and cultural landscapes in perfect harmony. The excavation of the ruins of Min Yue Royal Capitalopens a glorious page of Wuyi Mountain’s history. The ruins cover an area of 480,000 square meters. It is the best preserved and intact ancient city ruins in the Western Han Dynasty with most historical relics ever found in south of the Yangtze River.

As early as more than 4000 years ago, the ancient Min Yue people laboured and lived here. Gradually, the “ancient Min Yue” culture in the remote southeastern China and the subsequent culture of the “Min Yue Nationality” is formed.

The remained boat-shaped coffins suspended from cliffs reveal the peculiar funeral customs of the ancient Min Yue people. The suspended coffins with the longest history ever found at home and abroad –- Wuyi boat – shaped coffins – are the most valuable materials for the study of the history in the pre-Qin period and the vanished ancient Min Yue Nationality’s culture. Wuyi Mountain is another famous mountain rich in ideological culture after Mount Taishan in China.”

For photos of the Wuyi mountain cliff from which the hanging and boat coffins are found, see here and here.
Apart from China, boat-shaped coffins are also found in the Dong Son culture, Vietnam and in the Philippines

See A Study of Boat-shaped Coffins from Dongson Sites in Vietnam

Boat-shaped coffins have been found at archaeological sites throughout Mainland and Island Southeast Asia. The greatest concentration occurs in Vietnam, in Metal Age sites attributed to the Dong Son culture (500 BC-AD 300). At a conference on boat-shaped coffins at the History Museum in Hanoi in 1983, Vietnamese scholars proposed that these distinctive wooden coffins contained the remains of the ancient Viet. This paper discusses a recent study of boat-shaped  coffins from several Dong Son sites that gives some new insights into the groups who buried their dead in this unusual way during the late prehistoric period in Vietnam.  Boat-shaped coffins are still used by the Muong (linguistic relatives of the Vietnamese), Tais and other minorities in both Truong Son and Ta Nguyen Provinces. Not only do these particular ethnic groups share traditions with the Vietnamese, they also create distinctive features in their coffins, such as those shaped like the roofs of houses and animals. In all of the coffins, the grave goods were carefully arranged near the head, body and feet. Some burials also contained the remains of gourds and of several different types of bamboo. Bronze weapons such as spears, javelins, arrows and swords were placed parallel to some bodies, with blades pointing towards heads and handles pointing towards feet. A few coffins contained pottery and tools that were placed over the head and body. Some coffins also contained exotic artefacts made from wood, iron, bronze and glass.  The study also shows a correlation between boat-shaped coffins and the introduction of iron into Vietnam. It is well established that iron was superior (sharper and harder) to other metals and as a consequence, iron tools would have allowed the heavy clay but fertile soils in the alluvial and deltaic marshlands to be developed for agriculture. All of the boat-shaped coffin sites are strategically located in close proximity to water; either rivers, small streams or the sea. The dates clearly show that the boatshaped coffins are the products of the Dong Son culture. 171 boat-shaped coffins recovered from 44 sites, many are from Dong Son culture.

Source: A Study of Boat-shaped Coffins from Dongson Sites in Vietnam


1,000 year old boat-shaped coffins have also been found in the Niah caves, Borneo (Source: Burials in Caves) and they were also widespread in the Philippines around the same time (Encyclopedia of Prehistory: East Asia and Oceania, by Peter Neal Peregrine, Melvin Embe; The Soul Boat and the Boat-Soul: An Inquiry into the Indigenous Soul – see following quoted passages that parallel Japanese beliefs about the soul boats of the dead as well as Yayoi ritual practices for launching boat journeys as well as funerary boats).

The Boat Rituals

The rituals where the boats figured are most instructive in revealing the beliefs that lay beneath the surface.  One such religious procedure was called the kibang. In Tagalog, this term meant the rocking motion of a boat on the waves.  As a ceremony however, kibang was the old tradition of asking the anito (the spirit of the departed) what luck would befall the riders  before sailing or docking, and the movement was attributed as the spirit’s response (de San Antonio 67).  Visayans also had this ritual, similarly called guibang (Fernandez and Koback 442).  It was usually done before a raiding or a fishing expedition, intoning before the small baloto, “Guibang, guibang cun magtoto cami”  (Sway, sway, if we should proceed).”  If the baloto did sway, it meant good fortune; the greater the rocking movement, the better one’s fortune.  As the baloto swayed, they would ask who was causing the boat to sway, a deity or an ancestor’s spirit.  Where the boat swayed at the mention of the name, deity or spirit, there was their answer.  This ritual is practiced until the present time (Funtecha 13).  Likewise, when the children or relatives of a person who had drowned got sick they would be placed in a boat called barangay together with a baylan (a female diviner) and at the place she indicated, they would throw down a wooden chest full of clothes and other belongings of the dead person (de Loarca 85-86).  Simultaneously, they would ask their ancestors to help and heal the sick relatives. The bacalag was an important Visayan boat launching ritual recorded in the 17th century.  When a mangaiao (raiding boat) was to be launched, it would be rolled over several pieces of logs and at the end of these was an enslaved captive (Alcina 162-163).  This was reportedly done so that through the blood of the human sacrifice, the boat would be feared by their enemies and would succeed in obtaining numerous captives. During the ritual, the appeal was uttered, “Daoharlucsin iginbabacalagna,” a request that people would fear the boat in the same manner that the sacrificed captive did.  In Calagan (Caraga), the bacalag ritual was performed for the healing a of datu (chief) who was seriously ill.

Calag in Bicol and Visayan means “soul,” the root word in both bacalag and Calagan. We can conclude that Fr. Combes was referring to the bacalag ritual as a “revolting” ancient tradition in Caraga when he said, “for the boats to obtain good fortune, they promise it at the first instance a name, usually that of one of their slaves” (41).  It would have been the name of the sacrificed slave, which made it so repulsive to the Jesuit observer. Remnants of this ritual remain although in less severe form.  In Masbate island, the prow of a boat to be launched is brushed with chicken blood, while prayers are intoned.  This is usually performed by an elderly person. A boatbuilder in Cavite also reported doing this practice on the boat of a businessman from Iloilo City, who had requested the ritual.3  In the movie “Muro-Ami” which was set in Bohol island and records its fishing practices, the captain’s father brushed chicken blood on the prow of the boat that would be used for fishing.4  The practice has even been transmitted to a modern form of transport: the wheels of a new car are also brushed with chicken blood.5   The sacrifice is believed to bring the boat good fortune.

Fishermen in the northernmost Philippine island of Batanes offer up a pig to transfer to the animal whatever ill fortune may befall them or their boats (Mangahas 67, 77).  When they do not find any catch, they perform the cleansing ritual not only on themselves but also on their boat, as they believe envy or witchcraft has made themdirty, along with the boats and the port (Mangahas 87).   These examples of rituals indicate a way of thinking about boats which go beyond its function of transportation.  To understand this, we need to go to the basic tenets of the animist belief system, the most essential being the concept of the soul. The Indigenous “Soul” Bagobos, an indigenous Philippine ethnic group in Mindanao, believe that all things possess a gimokud or soul, including man-made objects (Benedict 54, 65).  Similarly, the Sama of Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi believe that the sumangat or soul is found in all nature, even inanimate things (Casiño 113).  This is believed to be the intrinsic spirit of an object that may be revealed at a particular time, according to Bottignolo and which gives the object its desirable characteristics assuch (41). This is the reason why warriors, for example, show a reverential attitude toward their weapons; it is not simply the physical object of a metal weapon but a blade that possesses the soul of a blade.  The soul of that object is what makes it hard and strong, whose strength would be revealed during battle.  Thus, warriors give names to their personal weapons6 not as ownership of the object but in recognition of its animism. Forging the weapon then becomes not an ordinary, but a sacred, activity in order that the soul of the blade may not depart from it.  As another example, there is also a ritual involving the “rice-soul”.  The Mandaya pray to the “soul of the rice” before planting7  so that it would cause the plant to bear many grains.
This basic animist principle of plants and objects possessing “souls” enable us to understand oral literature better, beginning with the epics.  The epic “Kudaman” of Palawan island’s Tagbanua people, for example, reveals that when Kudaman went down the house, the handrail shed tears of sorrow for the hero’s departure.8  This would show that they believe that the house possesses a life and therefore a soul, and can thus display its own emotions.  In the epic of “Labaw Donggon” the hero’s boat is believed to be magical and charmed, as it possesses powers of its own and the hero can talk to it to do his bidding.9Bagobos believe that both men and animals possess two souls, the bad soul on the left and the good on the right.  Man-made objects have only one soul, such as the soul of a betel nut box, or the soul of a lime container.  Among the Ifugao, this has been rendered in English as “soulstuff” (alimaduan) which is different from the soul (linawa).  The alimaduan is that which gives the object its distinctive characteristic.  For example, the alimaduan of the rice is to yield grain; of the pigs and chickens, to grow and multiply; of the person, to have desirable traits (Barton 141-142).  However, a knife that bends lacks soulstuff, so does a tree that does not bear fruit.   The term for soulstuff, alimaduan, is based on dua (two) which is also the root for kaluluwa(soul).  This would indicate the belief in another, or a second, presence within the material object.  The concept of an alimaduan is the reason why there are rituals to render proper homage to important objects: a ritual in forging a metal weapon, in weaving clothing, in making a boat….

Inferring from this, the boat then possesses its own soul, which is fundamentally related to the tree that had been used for its construction.  The entire boat building process and construction rituals are rooted in the belief in the soul: offerings are made to the soul inhabiting the tree so that it would remain in the tree when the log is transformed into a boat.  It is this soul of the boat that gives it its good qualities as a boat. We can get a glimpse of what these qualities are from a rowing song among the Ivatans of Batanes.  Upon the start of a sea voyage, the boatmen address the boat, asking it to be steady of purpose, to be forceful, and to be alert in finding land with a beautiful bay (Scheerer 315-316).  Similarly, Malays pray to the soul of a boat prior to a voyage and appeal that it keeps the planks together (Skeat 279)…

The belief in a soul in inanimate objects, plants and animals also explains the presence of grave goods.  Since these objects have souls, then they can accompany the dead on his journey and be brought over to the afterlife, along with the souls of the slaves buried with him.  When these grave goods are completely decomposed materially, then they can be useful to the soul of the dead (Benedict 54).   The souls of these objects will be used by the soul of the dead person.  This is why, among the Kankanay, not a single iron nail is used in the coffin because the dead person desires that everything should disintegrate together with his corpse (Canol 58)…

In the 16th century, a datu was buried in a boat with many rowers who would serve him in the other world (Chirino 135).  Slaves, food and drink were placed in the vessel that would carry the dead chief to the next life (Chirino 134).  Sometimes as many as 60 slaves would be made to accompany the datu in the afterlife.13  To accommodate this many passengers, the burial boat would have been a barangay. According to Loarca, when a datu descended from Dumaguet dies, a slave is made to die in the same manner as the chief (88).  He added that the slave chosen for this was the most wretched they could find, a foreigner and not one of them, for he remarked that they were “not at all cruel”.  The dead were buried in wooden coffins, piled with gold, clothing, and other expensive objects as they believed that if a person left this world well off, he would be received well in the next life. Tagalogs buried the dead beside his house; if it was a datu, he would be placed under a small house or porch constructed for this purpose (de Plasencia 122).  There was a mourning period of four days, after which the corpse was placed in a boat and buried.  Animals could be placed in the boat instead of rowers: a male and female species of the animal would be placed in the seat of the rowers, usually two goats, deers, or hens.  If the dead person was a warrior, a living slave would be tied underneath the corpse to die in this manner. Songs about the warrior’s  prowess and good qualities were sung by relatives during the wake. Boat coffins  The archaeological evidence of boat-shaped coffins abound from north to south of the Philippine islands as well as in the entire Southeast Asian region (Tenazas).”


Based on recent genetic research, we can hypothesize that there is a genetic connection between possibly, the Japanese boat-coffin people and to the boat coffins of the proto-Tibetan Bo boat-coffin people.

It has been suggested that Mitochondrial genome evidence (2009) revealed the following:

  • “the majority of Tibetan genetic components can trace their origins to the Neolithic immigrants from northern East Asia. Nearly all of the Y chromosome markers in Tibetans analyzed recently are indeed suggestive of more recent genetic inflow, except for the paragroup O3a5*-M134 (comprising the O3a5-M134 Y chromosomes not belonging to O3a5a-M117) which has a more ancient age of 22 kya. The high frequency of haplogroup D-M174 (the Eurasian YAP+ founder haplogroup) in Tibetans had previously led some researchers to propose an additional genetic contribution from Central Asians (9) or to infer an ancient relationship between Tibetans and Japanese.”
  • “The ages of M9a, A10, and G3a1 fall into the period of post-LGM warming, whereas M9a2, M9c, M13a, and M13b are likely of early Holocene origin. It is noteworthy that the arrival time of these haplogroups at the Tibetan Plateau may have been somewhat more recent than their coalescent ages would indicate, because some of these haplogroups (A10 and M9a in particular) had already differentiated before their arrival on the plateau. It is then conceivable that most, if not all, of these haplogroups may have actually arrived and spread on the plateau only after the 8.2 ka event (8.0–8.4 kya) at the beginning of the Holocene climatic optimum, with first Epipaleolithic and later Neolithic settlers from the upper and middle Yellow River. The distribution and frequencies of the geographically differentiated haplogroups M9a and M13 strikingly parallels that of the Y-chromosome haplogroup D-M174, which has relatively high frequencies (14.0%–72.3%) among most Tibeto-Burman populations and in Japanese (35.1%)”

Source: Mitochondrial genome evidence reveals successful Late Paleolithic settlement on the Tibetan Plateau, by Mian Zhao et al.  PNAS December 15, 2009vol. 106 no. 50 21230-21235 doi:10.1073/pnas.0907844106

2 responses to “Why were some of the Yayoi coffins boat-shaped?

  1. with this research, it is clearly telling us that there are a lot of things we dont know and need to look into for further study. by this, we are trying to learn our past but it does not mean that we have to live in it. we have to move on. the past only reminds us of what was our ancestors’ life and how they lived and survived so that we will better understand and appreciate that we live only once. and that is now.

  2. Recent genetic studies show strong links between the proto-Tibetans, Di-Qiang lineages and the Japanese (see added paragraph above). The ancestral lines of the Tibetans including the Bo people, and of the Japanese appear to be linked by the mtDNA M9a and M13 and by Y-DNA D-174 and YAP markers (as well as other markers). Where genetics and archaeological and cultural artefacts show strong matches, we can now surmise the origins of the Japanese people and their possible migratory paths into Japan. The Dong Son people who also used boat coffins have been shown to have interacted with the Di-an people in Yunnan or Yunnan Tibetans. Similarities in ancient bronze artefacts of all three peoples can be seen.

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