Paleolithic Period in Japan

The Japanese Paleolithic Period spanned from about 35,000 BCE to about 13,000 BCE

The earliest presence of human beings on the Japanese archipelago should mark the beginning of the Japanese Paleolithic Period, but determining the exact start date of this is very difficult. This is mainly because Japanese soil consists largely of volcanic ash, which is highly acidic and has, over tens of thousands of years, melted the organic materials it contained, like human bones, clothes, animal hides, and wooden tools. So, in Japan it is generally difficult to find anything organic from the geological strata older than 15,000 BCE unless certain conditions in the soil exist. (As one of these rare examples, at the Tomizawa Ruins in Miyagi Prefecture in the Tohoku Region, they found a number of tree roots and trunks, besides some signs of human and animal activities, from a layer from around 20,000 years ago.) But basically, at present, almost all we know about how the earliest Japanese lived back in those days comes from chipped stone tools. Since stone tools are inorganic materials, they can be unearthed in their nearly original states even from Paleolithic rock layers from more than 30,000 years ago.

Ice Age stone tools discovered in Japan
“Knife type” stone tools dating back some 20,000 years, which were unearthed in western Shizuoka Prefecture.

Today, it is generally believed that first humans arrived and settled on the Japanese archipelago during the period roughly stretching from 38,000 BCE to 33,000 BCE, because the oldest stone tools in Japan, according to most archaeologists, have been discovered in layers from around that period throughout the country. And this theory doesn’t contradict greatly with the widely accepted belief about the long journey of our direct ancestors: Homo sapiens first appeared somewhere in Africa around 200,000 years ago (give or take a few thousands). And some of them left their native continent and settled in other parts of the world around 100,000 to 70,000 years ago, eventually reaching Eastern Asia around 40,000 to 35,000 years ago.

Fossils of Naumann's Elephant discovered in Japan
Fossilized molar (Left) and bone (Right) from a Naumann’s Elephant, which were discovered near Lake Hamana in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Studies suggest that, in those days, the temperature of the earth was colder than it is now, and there were a lot of glaciers on the earth’s surface, which in turn means the level of the sea water was lower by the total amount of those glaciers. Under these conditions, the Japanese archipelago is considered to have broken off and reconnected with the Eurasian Continent several times. This seems obvious from the fossils of extinct mammals which have been found across the country: A number of fossil molars which are considered to be mammoths’ were discovered in various places in Hokkaido; and fossil fragments of Naumann’s elephant (the top photo on this page shows its skeleton model) and Giant Yabe elk were unearthed in great number from the remains found near Lake Nojiri in Nagano Prefecture in the Chubu Region. As it is known that these massive animals originated on the continent, researchers more or less agree that the first inhabitants in Japan were the people who came following them to the Far Eastern archipelago.

An artist’s rendition of one day in the life of the Paleolithic people, based on the excavation results at the Tomizawa archaeological site in Miyagi Prefecture.

About the lives of the Paleolithic people in Japan, very little is currently known. But many think they were basically hunters who moved constantly throughout the land to track animals. They seem to have lived in a simple tent-like house made of animal hides. It is certain that they used chipped stone tools. And the mounds of small stones, where they likely butchered animals and steamed the meat, have also been discovered. But they didn’t yet have any technique for making earthen vessels, not to mention metal vessels. So, it is thought that probably they couldn’t boil their foods or eat any kind of soup.

Various Types of Stone Tools

The earliest stone tools discovered in Japan are very primitive types of chipped stone tools. And they include a particular type where only one side of a stone is sharply polished. It is sometimes cited as one of the earliest polished tools in the world. Throughout the Paleolithic Period, stone-tool making techniques advanced and regional differences in forms gradually began to emerge. Although it is not clear exactly what kind of purpose each of these tools was used for, it is thought that some tools were used for skinning, others for felling or digging, while some were attached to the tip of a wooden shaft and used as a spearhead. Today, researchers are busy sorting, categorizing, and naming these primitive tools, which vary in their shape and size, time period they were used, and the area they were excavated from.

Among the variety of these Paleolithic stone tools, one particular type seems to be worth a special mention here. That is the one called saisekijin (which is sometimes translated as “microlith,” but it seems the scope of this English term is much broader than its Japanese counterpart ). It is thin and tiny tool with a sharp cutting edge. And researchers assume that people sometimes used several of them at a time by inserting them on both sides of a stick, which was made of wood or animal bone, in order to hunt animals. (This whole process was once reproduced by a Japanese high school teacher in Saitama Prefecture. I thought it was an impressive work and he was gracious enough to permit me to put the photographs of his work on this website, as shown below.)

How to make saisekki (saisekijin), a tool in the Ice Age in Japan
Left: Saisekijin have been inserted only on one side of the wooden spear. Right: Ready to hunt mammoths.

Studies suggest that saisekijin and its usage originated in Siberia and was introduced to Hokkaido, through the land bridge which existed at that time, some 23,000 years ago. And it was eventually brought to Japan’s main island, seemingly forming a “saisekijin culture” all through the land during the end of the Paleolithic Period.

Excavation of Paleolithic Human Bones

Mainly because of the aforementioned acidic soil attributed to ancient volcanic activities, fossils of human bones have been rarely excavated from the Paleolithic layers of Japan. So far, a set of bone fossils unearthed in 1962 at a limestone quarry (present-day Negata Site) in the Hamakita area of Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, is considered to be the only “authentic” Paleolithic human bones found on Japan’s main island. These bones are commonly called the “Hamakita human bones.” When analyzed by the latest “carbon-14 dating method” in 2002, a part of those bones were found to be 18,000 years old. However, since these bones are only fragments, some argue that they are not a big enough sample size to grasp its overall image.

The Negata Site where the oldest human bones in Japan's main land were discovered.
The Negata Site, where the “Hamakita bones” were discovered, is a former limestone quarry located in the precinct of Gansui-ji Buddhist Temple.

On the other hand, a considerable number of well-preserved Paleolithic human remains have been discovered from the various places on the southern islands in Okinawa Prefecture in the Kyushu Region, including the Minatogawa limestone quarry and the Yamashita limestone cave. In particular, there is a site which has attracted attention from many researchers in recent years. That is the Shiraho Saonetabaru Cave Ruins on Ishigaki Island, which lies just about 300 km off the coast of Taiwan. In 2008, during the construction of the new Ishigaki Airport, several fragments of human bones were unearthed there, and the carbon-14 dating result indicated that one of the bones dates back to some 20,000 years ago.

Shiraho Saonetabaru Cave site
Excavation at the Shiraho Saonetabaru Cave Site, with the newly-built Ishigaki Airport and the Pacific Ocean in the background.

Subsequently, through the several large-scale excavations at the same site, which have been conducted by the Okinawa Prefectural Archaeological Center between 2012 and 2016, they discovered many human bones from at least nineteen different people. These bones included one nearly complete skeleton of a male human (the “Skeleton No. 4”), which was later analyzed and turned out to be 27,000 years old. Now, studies of various aspects of these findings in Okinawa are continuing, and people are hoping that some insights will be learned about the history of the Paleolithic people on the southern island chain and how they were related to the ancestors of the mainland Japanese.

Findings at the Sites of Kanadori and Sunabara

There are some scholars who say that the Japanese Paleolithic Period dates back much farther than 40,000 years ago. In fact, at the Kanadori archeological site in Iwate Prefecture, a group of stone tools has been excavated from the strata which are thought to be 80,000 to 90,000 years old. Also, the researchers in the Sunabara Remains in Shimane Prefecture in the Chugoku Region have been claiming that the flake stones and chipped stones they found there date back 110,000 to 120,000 years ago and are thus the oldest stone tools ever discovered in Japan.

Map of Japan in the Paleolithic Period
Map of Japan in the Paleolithic Period, with the locations of well-known archaeological sites.

However, for both of these sites, full consensus has not yet been reached in the Japanese academic world on their findings. Perhaps, this has something to do with a fact that it is sometimes very difficult to determine whether certain “chippings” on a stone, for example, are artificial or natural―even specialists sometimes disagree over this kind of issue. Also, sometimes errors have been pointed out in determining an exact age of a certain stratum. And I suppose another reason would be that there are still some people who are overly cautious because they have not yet been able to forget the dark memory of an incident which occurred in November 2000, known as the “Japanese Paleolithic Hoax.” In the incident, the perpetrator eventually admitted he intentionally staged the discovery of many Paleolithic stone tools that he claimed were 40,000 to 200,000 years old. And later, several sites he had been involved with had their government designation as special sites removed.

Top photo (Skeleton model of Naumann’s Elephant): taken by Koji Ikuma on June 26, 2020, with Fujifilm X-T1 & XF 35mmF2 R WR. Courtesy of the Hamamatsu City Museum.
Second photo (two photos of stone tools): taken by Koji Ikuma on May 28, 2020, with iPhone 6 Plus. Courtesy of the Hamamatsu City Museum.
Third photo (two photos of fossil bones from a Naumann’s Elephant): taken by Koji Ikuma on June 26, 2020, with Fujifilm X-T1 & XF 35mmF2 R WR. Courtesy of the Hamamatsu City Museum.
Illustration (“At a campsite in Tohoku in the Paleolithic Period”): by Shuichi Hosono. Courtesy of the Sendai City Board of Education.
Fourth photo (two photos of saikekijin-making): Courtesy of Keiichi Kaito of Basara Nihonshi.
Fifth photo (two photos of the Negata Site): taken by Koji Ikuma with Fujifilm X-T1 & XF 35mmF2 R WR. Courtesy of Gansui-ji Buddhist Temple.
Sixth photo (Shiraho Saonetabaru Cave Ruins): Courtesy of the Okinawa Prefectural Archaeological Center.

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