Ainu people blue eyes

Origins Of The Ainu

Posted on 02/02/2006 4:16:59 PM PST by blam

A map of Japan showing the fateful site of Sakushukotoni-gawa on Hokkaido.

Origins of the Ainu

by Gary Crawford

The ringing telephone broke the evening silence. It was the fall of 1983, and my research partner, Professor Masakazu Yoshizaki, was calling from Japan.

"Gary, I have some news," Yoshi said. "We have a few grains of barley from a site on the Hokkaido University campus. I think you should come and look at them."

The Japanese language is notorious for its ambiguity, so I wasn't quite sure of the full meaning of what I had just heard. But I didn't need to know much more. Though it may sound like a trivial piece of news to you, I knew something was up, and it deserved closer scrutiny. My teaching schedule at the University of Toronto kept me from hopping on a plane for several months, but when I finally got to the lab on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, I realized the full import of Yoshi's news - namely, that the history of Hokkaido's indigenous people, the Ainu, was about to be rewritten.

Since the mid-1970s I had been investigating the relationship between plants and people in prehistoric northeastern Japan, particularly Hokkaido, using an archeological tool called flotation. The widespread use of this technique beginning in the 1960s sparked a quiet revolution in archeology. Flotation facilitates the collection of plant remains, mainly seeds and charcoal, preserved by burning in oxygen-poor environments such as the depths of a fireplace. Under these circumstances, seeds don't oxidize to ashy dust. One can recover the resulting carbonized seeds by sampling soil from ancient hearths, floors, pits, garbage dumps, and the like. One places the soil gently in water, stirs it so the carbonized material floats to the surface, and then decants the water and its floating contents through a fine mesh, which traps the floating plant material while allowing the water to pass through.

A flotation screen with a recovered sample.

Until the advent of flotation, we couldn't systematically explore early plant use, plant domestication, the local environmental impact of people, and so on. Archeologists had only a limited appreciation of this crucial aspect of prehistoric human life. Wherever we introduced flotation, our perspective on early human life changed, often dramatically. Little did I know just how dramatically it would change our interpretation of the archeology of northeastern Japan.

The archeological grain from Sakushukotoni-gawa ("gawa" means river), as the campus site is known, dated to A.D. 700 to 900. The site is contemporaneous with the medieval Japanese to the south, who had been forging a nation-state for several centuries. The immediate predecessors of the Ainu, who are the native people of northeastern Japan, occupied the site. Many archeologists consider the Ainu to be the last living descendants of the Jomon people, who lived throughout Japan from as early as 13,000 years ago. The Jomon are known for their elaborate earthenware, which they often decorated with cord (rope) impressions, and for their stone tools, pit-house villages, and, by 1500 B.C. elaborate cemeteries marked by stone circles or high earth embankments. To a large degree, the Jomon relied on hunting, fishing, and collecting plants and shellfish for their subsistence.

An early Jomon pit house.

Archeologists find it useful to interpret archeological cultures by relating what they find to existing or historically recorded direct descendants of those cultures. This is quite common in the New World, where many traditional Amerindian cultures known archeologically were also observed and recorded by Europeans. Even today many Amerindians continue to live much as they did in the past, so the continuity with the archeological record is usually indisputable and extremely informative.

To a large extent, this also seemed to be the case in northeastern Japan. Archeologists and historians have long described the Ainu, like the Jomon, as hunter-fisher-collectors and, because the two peoples lived in the same region, they had few qualms about assuming the Ainu were living representatives of Jomon culture. However, the Ainu, at least in the last few centuries according to historic records, lived in above-ground, rectangular dwellings and used metal tools as well as wooden and ceramic bowls, pots, and dishes. These characteristics contrast with those of the Jomon, but in the minds of historians and archeologists it was the lack of agriculture in both cultures that forged the link between the Ainu and Jomon cultures. Further bolstering this opinion, the skeletal biology of Jomon populations demonstrates a strong resemblance and therefore a close affinity to the Ainu. Justifiably, the Ainu seemed a relic of a primitive hunting-and-gathering people who had inhabited northeastern Japan for thousands of years.

Yet the relationship between the Jomon and the Ainu is anything but straightforward.

Sometime around A.D. 600 to 700 in Hokkaido, rectangular pit-houses suddenly appear, and a new type of earthenware called "Satsumon" pottery just as precipitately replaced traditional cord-marked pottery.

An Early Jomon Pot (Left) And Later Satsumon Pottery

Decorated with incised, geometric patterns, Satsumon pots are quite distinct from those of the preceding Jomon. Their shapes are different, and their walls show evidence of smoothing by pieces of wood having been scraped over the surface. So the Sakushukotoni-gawa site is not a Jomon village. Rather it represents a community of what, after its characteristic pottery, Hokkaido archeologists call the "Satsumon culture." Falling in time between the Jomon and the Ainu, the site is crucial to understanding Ainu development.

Rewriting the Ainu Story

Having slept fitfully after a nearly 20-hour journey to Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital, I made my way to the lab, where Yoshi took me to a table covered in sample jars. What I saw was not just a few grains of barley, but thousands of charred grains packed into dozens of jars. My Japanese colleagues had recovered the seeds from the initial series of flotation samples from Sakushukotoni-gawa, the first set of such samples ever collected from a Satsumon site. What Yoshi had not told me in that fateful telephone call was that he and his compatriots had only identified a few grains; thousands remained to be analyzed.

An archeological team works on an early Satsumon house on Hokkaido.

In the 1920s, a visitor had mapped hundreds of pit houses, still visible as depressions in the ground, in and around Hokkudai. Such a potentially

large population of Satsumon people was hard to explain if they were hunter-gatherers. We now thought we knew what lay behind this dense settlement in Sapporo.

Over the next few years, our team examined nearly a quarter million carbonized seeds from Sakushukotoni-gawa. In addition to barley, the samples contained bread wheat, foxtail and broomcorn millet, bean (probably azuki, or Japanese red bean), hemp, rice, melon, and safflower as well as seeds of weeds and wild fruit. We explored many more Satsumon sites on Hokkaido, and all produced crop remains. Sometimes these sites contained only one or two types of grain; others like Sakushukotoni-gawa show a wide range of crops. The list of crops in use on Hokkaido at the time has since expanded to include buckwheat, barnyard millet, and sorghum. The conclusion is inescapable: The Satsumon ancestors of the Ainu were not solely hunter-fisher-collectors. They were farmers. Such a distinction may not sound very significant, but in studies of prehistoric societies, it makes all the difference in shaping a proper understanding of a people's identity, power structure, economy, social relations, and so on. It's as if you were researching your roots and discovered that your ancestors came from South America rather than Europe as you'd always thought; it would change the whole way you thought about your family history.

An electron microscope image of a grain of barley from the Sakushukotoni-gawa site on Hokkaido.

Although our research has shown that the Jomon did grow a few crops, they did not commit to agriculture to the extent the Satsumon did. Clearly Satsumon and Ainu ancestral roots had to be sought elsewhere, and Ainu culture could no longer serve as a living model of Jomon lifeways. We now believe a closer analogue, in fact, is the agricultural ancestors of the Japanese - an admittedly highly controversial link clinched in our minds by recognition of the importance of agriculture to the Ainu's Satsumon ancestors.

The general archeological record in Japan is consistent with this view. Starting about 400 B.C. the Jomon in southwestern Japan had given way to strong influences from China and Korea, including migration. Eight hundred to a thousand years later, most of Japan excluding Hokkaido had made a significant commitment to agriculture. This period (400 B.C. to A.D. 300) was the time of the Yayoi, a rice-farming culture named after the first site of its kind, which was discovered in Tokyo's Yayoi neighborhood. While known for being the first group in Japan to use irrigated rice fields for intensive food production, the Yayoi also grew other crops, including barley, wheat, and foxtail and broomcorn millet. In northeastern Japan, where attempts to grow rice met with little success, these other crops flourished. All the crops found in Satsumon Hokkaido were likely growing by A.D. 400-500 in Tohoku, the northernmost province of Honshu, Japan's main island that lies just to the south of Hokkaido.

Hokkaido Jomon cultures continued during the Yayoi period long after the Jomon ended in southwestern Japan, but these continuing (or Epi-Jomon) sites developed a new character. Most sites consist of simple cemeteries with associated, apparently seasonal encampments. Inexplicably, only a few Epi-Jomon pit-houses have ever turned up.

An Epi-Jomon Pot

A migration of the Satsumon from Tohoku into Hokkaido seems to have brought an end to the Epi-Jomon. Indeed, the Satsumon culture appears to have developed out of the Tohoku Yayoi, though little is known of the archeology of this transition. By the time the Satsumon appeared, the Japanese in southwestern Japan were well on their way to establishing a nation-state. Satsumon material culture resembles that of these early state peoples, particularly the Nara and Heian regimes (A.D. 710-1192). Clearly, Ainu culture was far removed from the Jomon.

An Electron Microscope Image Of A Grain Of Barley

How had this earlier characterization of the Ainu as hunters of the northern Japanese forests evolved? For one thing, few actually witnessed Ainu life before it was disrupted by Japanese colonization attempts, and those who did visit Ainu communities reported agriculture, but they generally assumed it to be a recent introduction by the Japanese, who had passed laws in the late 1800s requiring the Ainu to settle and take up agriculture. The government needed to take a census for taxation purposes, and men as hunters, women as farmers did not fit standard employment categories. So, by legislation, the government, in effect, deemed that men become farmers, even though, as our findings suggest, they had been farmers for some time.

A mass of millet (mixed grain) from a flotation sample.

A bleaker thought is that fostering a myth of simple hunter-gatherers made it easier for Japanese colonizers to appropriate Ainu lands and resources. In hindsight, the changes stem from a complicated mix of factors, cultures, and attitudes developed over many centuries. But the Ainu still exist and, despite extreme hardship, are slowly making progress towards gaining recognition as an indigenous people of Japan. Hopefully the results of that phone call back 16 years ago will aid that process.

Dr. Gary W. Crawford is a professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, Canada. An archeologist specializing in palaeoethnobotany, the study of the relationships between plants and people in prehistory, he has conducted research in Japan since 1974. The author would like to thank Susan Rossi-Wilcox for her comments on earlier drafts of this article, and the following organizations for supporting his research: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Earthwatch, the Japan Association for the Advancement of Science, the University of Toronto, and Hokkaido University.

Some things I know about the Jomon - Ainu:

* The Ainu are tall, light-skinned and hairy people who are erroneously called 'Caucasian.'

* 9,300 Year Old Kennewick Man Is believed to be Ainu.

* The Oldest Jomon Skeleton Ever Found In Japan is 13,000 years old.

* The Ainu are believed to be descended from the Jomon.

* The Jomon were noted for their 'cord-marked' type pottery. Archaeologists believe they have found this type pottery in the Olmec ruins in Mexico.

* The oldest (undisputed) Mongoloid skeleton ever found is only 10,000 years old. My present opinion is that both the Mongoloids and Caucasians sprang from an early Jomon line.

I'd like to hear your thoughts and ideas on this subject. I will post other related articles and pictures as we proceed.

1 posted on 02/02/2006 4:17:00 PM PST by blam

Category: Ainu

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