Models of 20,000-year-old Minatogawa Man and Woman

Several thousands paleolithic sites have been found in Japan — an unusually large number compared with other parts of the world. Charles T. Keally wrote: “The Japanese Late Palaeolithic has been recognized since the excavation of the Iwajuku site north of Tokyo in 1949. There are over 10,000 known sites that belong to this period in Japan. Large excavations since the late 1960s have provided massive amounts of data and given a detailed picture of the chronology and regional variations throughout this culture spanning the last glaciation. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

There were four ice ages during the Paleolithic era. The climate in Japan at that time was mostly cool to cold. No continental glaciers reached Japan as they did in northern Europe and North America but places that are underwater now off the coast of Japan were exposed by the lower seas levels. When the ice ages were at their peak and the sea levels were at their lowest some parts of Japan were connected to the Asian landmass by land bridges. Approximately 20,000 years ago, during the Wiirm ice age, Japan was connected to the continent and sea levels were 150 meters lower than they are today. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

It has been estimated that the temperature in Japan was 7-8 degrees lower than today at the peak of the Wiirm ice age 21,000-18,000 years ago. Tundra like that in the Arctic covered much of Hokkaido. Northern Honshu and central Japan were covered with boreal forests with larch, spruce and Japanese hemlock trees. These forests were similar to the taiga found in Siberia today. Western Japan from the Kanto Plain around Tokyo to southern Kyushu was covered by temperate coniferous forest. Nauman’s elephants, Yabe’s elk, moose, brown bear, steppe bison and aurochs were among the many large animals that lived in the forests of eastern and northern Japan, along with generally Arctic fauna. ++

Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ;Essay on Rice and History ; Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu ; Yoshinogari Historical Park ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Palaeolithic Archeology in Japan

Charles T. Keally wrote:“Palaeolithic sites are usually hard to find from the surface, hence a large proportion are found during excavation. But most archaeologists in Japan are not interested in the Palaeolithic, and many do not excavated these deeper strata, even during contract excavations. Palaeolithic archaeology accounts for only about 2 percent of all the excavation work and publication in Japan. [Source:Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

archeological excavation in a Japanese city

“A huge volcanic eruption in southern Japan sometime around 24,000 (or 22,000) years ago spread a distinctive ash, the Aira-Tanzawa (AT) tephra, across most of the country, making it possible to date sites everywhere in Japan "before or after AT." About the same time, the first truly knife-shaped stone tools show up, a backed tool made on a blade-flake. From that time on, pebble tools become progressively less important, and small, well-made tools, especially the knife-shaped tools, become progressively more important, until around 16,000 years ago when the pebble tools all but disappear from the sites. The small tools of chert and obsidian, or hard shale, that predominate between 16,000 and about 13,000 years ago show considerable resemblance to tools of the same age in northeastern Asia and in Europe. The tools from sites in the northernmost island, Hokkaido, are almost identical to those in the Russian Far East and Siberia. ++

“The only human skeletons unquestionably belonging to this period come from sites in the Okinawan chain, extending far to the south of the main Japanese islands. But artifacts from this region are not convincing, and the islands seem to have been abandoned by humans for several thousand years after the end of the Palaeolithic. I do not feel these skeletons provide particularly useful evidence for the humans living in the main islands of Japan during the Palaeolithic.” ++

Traditions and Phases in the Japanese Late Palaeolithic Period (Traditions, Phases, Dates): 1) Pebble & Flake Tool: a) Phase Ia, 35,000-27,000 years ago; b) Phase Ib, 27,000-23,000 years ago; c) Phase Ic, 23,000-21,000 years ago 2) Backed-Tool: a) Phase IIa, 21,000-16,000 years ago’ b) Phase Iib, 16,000-13,000 years ago 3) Microlithic, Phase III, 13,000-12,000 years ago; 4) Bifacial Projectile Point, Phase IV, 12,500-11,000 years ago; 5) Incipient Jomon, 13,000-9500 years ago. ++

Kudo Yuichiro has proposed the following chronology for the end of the Late Palaeolithic and the beginning of the Jomon Period in eastern Honshu Island, based on nearly 90 calibrated radiocarbon dates from over 20 sites. This chronology spans the dates from about 24,000 to about 11,000 years ago. 1) Backed point industry, 23,000-20,000 years ago; 2) Point industry, 21,000-19,000 years ago; 3) Microblade industry, 18,000 (20,000)-15,000 years ago; 4) Biface industry & Plain pottery group, 17,000-15,000 years ago; 5) Slender-clay-ridges pottery group, 15,000 (16,000)-14,000 (13,000) years ago; 6) Crescent-impressed & cord-marked pottery group, 13,500-11,500 years ago; 6) Cord-wrapped-stick pattern pottery group, 11,000 years ago and later,

Palaeolithic Japan Tools and Pottery

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan:The Paleolithic people made large and rough core tools by working on a fist-sized piece of rock (called the core) with a similar rock (called the hammerstone) and knocking off several large flakes and chipping away the surface of a stone. They also produced flake tools by working with a stone flake broken off from a larger piece of stone. These stone tools are like the “signature” or “footprints” left behind by the Paleolithic people, and the various tools that were produced include trapezoids, edge-ground stone axes, backed-blades, leaf-shaped bifacial point-tools, pebble tools, grinding and pounding tools, and microblades (tools with blades smaller than 1 centimeter). [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“Wherever Paleolithic people made their base campsites, they left behind traces of many small flakes and chips from the manufacture and maintenance of stone tools. Even at their work camps and butchering sites, and temporary sites, they would have left lots of stone flakes and chips – the telltale signs of tool sharpening. And that’s what archaeologists look out for when they go digging in search of Stone Age finds. Only a few tools made of bone have been found. They left behind stone tools, fire-cracked rocks or fireplaces, stone materials, and other artifacts everywhere. From examining the stone materials left behind by the Paleolithic people, experts know they traded extensively stone materials and stone tools.”

Charles T. Keally wrote: “Right from the beginning of the Late Palaeolithic, all sites show extensive evidence of tool manufacture and of the use of exotic materials--in sharp contrast to the total or nearly total lack of such evidence in sites in Japan claimed to be older than 35,000 years. Edge-ground ax-like tools also occur in some of the earliest sites of this period. But flake tools and various pebble tools predominate from 35,000 to about 23,000 years ago. These artifacts show some similarities to materials of the same age in North China, but overall this culture gives the impression of being a pioneering culture. Sites older than about 23,000 years ago are all on the three southern main islands of Japan; no convincing (to me) sites older than this are reported on the northern island of Hokkaido. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

“The distinctive Northeast Asian microblades and cores are found in Hokkaido from about 15,000 years ago, and in Tokyo and western Japan from around 13,000 or 12,000 years ago. These mircrolithic sites are all non-ceramic except the later ones on the southern island of Kyushu, such as the famous Fukui Cave site. Large bifacial foliate points are found with microcores in much of northern Japan, but they seem to post-date the microcores in the Kanto region around Tokyo. ++

“Occasionally a few potsherds are found with these bifacial points in the east, where they are dated 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. But the linear-relief pottery, the oldest clear style and the one found with microcores in Fukui Cave, seems to appear only as the bifacial points evolve into small stemmed points that could be arrowheads. This period between about 13,000 and 10,000 years ago is one marked by rapid change and considerable regional variation; it also is one very difficult to date. Consequently, the crucial period of transition from the Palaeolithic to the Jomon is still very unclear. ++

Life of Palaeolithic People in Japan

Charles T. Keally wrote: “What the Late Palaeolithic peoples in Japan did for food is still little more than a guess. Only the Lake Nojiri site has yielded artifacts in association with possible food remains — Nauman’s elephants and Yabe’s elks — but even there the evidence that these bones represent human kills is far from convincing. Also, there is little research into use-wear on the artifacts, so we have no valid idea of how the various tools were used. I feel the size of the tools argues for smaller animals rather than larger (huge) animals as the main focus of hunting. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

“For interpreting other aspects of behavior, we have only the stone tools, fire-cracked rocks, stone materials, and the distributions of artifacts within the sites and of sites across the landscape. Source analyses of stone materials show wide-spread movement of stone, either through trade or high mobility of the people. Obsidian from Kozu Island south of Tokyo appears in sites from the beginning of the Late Palaeolithic, demonstrating that these people had the ability to cross rather wide stretches of sea. Most sites were occupied for short periods of time -- a few days to a few weeks or months -- and then not used again for 1,000s of years, suggesting considerable mobility in settlement pattern. There is no good evidence of solid structures for dwellings, although there are a few claims for pit-dwellings. And the only known burials and body decorations both date to near the end of the Late Palaeolithic, in a site in southwestern Hokkaido. ++

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: From a site in southwestern Hokkaido dated to near the end of the Late Palaeolithic period, scientists gathered that they buried their people and decorated their bodies. Scientists know that the people were mostly fishing from rivers and hunting in the forests. They also gathered fruits and nuts such as hazelnuts and berries. The Hatsunegahara site in Shizuoka offered up 56 prehistoric pit traps that tell us how the people caught animals such as wild boars and even Naumann elephants, giant fallow deer and bison, between 27,000 and 25,000 years ago. However, the pit traps of the Otsubobata site in Tanegashima are now thought to be even older dating to 30,000 years years ago.” At the Lake Nojiri site, experts are not sure whether Nauman’s elephants and Yabe’s elks butchered there were hunted and killed or merely scavenged.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Japan, Home of the Oldest Polished Tools in the World

Polished stone axes

Japan is the home of the oldest known ground stone tools and polished stone tools in the world, dated to around 30,000 B.C. This technology typically associated with the beginning of the Neolithic Period, around 10,000 B.C., in the rest of the world. It is not known why such tools were created so early in Japan, although the period is associated with a warmer climate worldwide. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Keiji Imamura wrote in “Prehistoric Japan, New Perspectives on Insular East Asia", “In prehistoric Japan, ground stone tools appear during the Japanese Paleolithic period. Elsewhere, ground stone tools became important during the Neolithic period. These ground or polished implements are manufactured from larger-grained materials such as basalt, jade and jadeite, greenstone and some forms of rhyolite which are not suitable for flaking. [Source: Prehistoric Japan, New Perspectives on Insular East Asia", Keiji Imamura, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu]

Because of this originality, the Japanese Paleolithic period in Japan does not exactly match the traditional definition of Paleolithic based on stone technology (chipped stone tools). Japanese Paleolithic tool implements thus display Mesolithic and Neolithic traits as early as 30,000 B.C. Polished stone tools are strongly associated with the Neolithic period, although they have been around since the Paleolithic era and such products were traded across a wide area. Polishing rough-cut stone axes not only increased the intrinsic mechanical strength of the axe but also meant that the head could penetrate wood more easily. Polished stone axes were important for the widespread clearance of woods and forest during the Neolithic period, when crop and livestock farming developed on a large scale. Such axe heads were needed in large numbers for forest clearance and the establishment of settlements and farmsteads. By comparison the oldest polished stones in China — axes, adzes, cutters with polished blades — came from the 22,000- to 24,000-year-old Bailiandong site in southern China. In Europe, polished stone axes and adzes appeared in Bohemia in the present-day Czech Republic first in the Early Neolithic with the Lbk Culture. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

World's Oldest Fishhooks in Okinawa

In September 2016, scientists announced that they found the oldest known fishhooks in the world on a limestone cave on the Japanese island of Okinawa according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS). Believed to be about 23,000 years old, the hooks are carved from sea snail shells and are thought to have been used to catch crabs and freshwater snails from a stream on the island. This find displaces another set of ancient fishhooks found in East Timor in 2011. The East Timorese hooks were dated between 16,000 and 23,000 years old. The Okinawan ones were carbon datied to between 22,380 and 22,770 years of age. [Source: The Week, Bonnie Kristian September 18, 2016]

The Guardian reported: “ Researchers say the fish-hooks, made from the shells of sea snails and found in the Sakitari cave, show the development of fishing technology at an earlier stage than previously thought and more widespread than previously known...Researchers, from a range of Japanese institutes and universities, have been excavating three areas of the Sakitari cave, a limestone structure on the southern coast of Okinawa, since 2009 and have published their findings in the PNAS journal. [Source: Kate Lyons, The Guardian, September 18, 2016 /=]

“It was previously believed resources were too scarce on the island for it to have supported life for long periods of time. But the excavation of the cave found evidence of eels, frogs, fish, birds and small mammals, which had been charred, suggesting consumption by humans, in various layers of rock. Researchers believe this and the other findings of their excavation indicates the island has been nearly continuously occupied since 35,000 years ago. As well as the fish-hooks and remains of animals, researchers also found human remains, seashell beads, as well as something they believe might have been a grindstone. The discovery of the charred remains of the crab is also significant, say the researchers, in that it provides evidence of seasonal eating habits. The size of the crab remains indicate they were captured in the autumn when they were larger and were migrating downstream for reproduction, which is “also the season when they are the most delicious”. /=\

24,000 Year-Old Image of a Vagina Found in Japan

In April 2001, scientists announced that a 24,000-year-old artifact, containing an image believed to be a representation of a woman, unearthed from the Mimitori ruins in Kagoshima Prefecture, is and the oldest image of a human being found in Japan. The Japan Times reported: “The roundish object, made of shale, is about 5 centimeters long, 3 centimeters wide and 3 centimeters tall, and has been carved to represent what appears to be a woman, according to the Kagoshima Prefectural Archaeological Center. [Source: Japan Times April 26, 2000 +++] “On the underside of the object, there are 17 thin carved lines, probably representing hair, and a groove on the underside representing a vulva, center officials said. Meiji University professor Masao Anbiru said the artifact is similar to figures unearthed in Europe during the Paleolithic period. Those figures also have exaggerated sexual features. The discovery suggests that “people all over the world may have led common spiritual lives during the Paleolithic period,” Anbiru said. Cultural Affairs Agency researcher Michio Okamura said, “We cannot determine whether it represents a woman, but it is appropriate to say it is Japan’s oldest expression of a human being.” +++

“Previously, the oldest artifact of its kind was one shaped like a breast discovered at the Kamikuroiwa ruins in Ehime Prefecture. The item, discovered during an excavation project in 1961, was believed to be between 10,000 and 12,000 years old, from the Incipient Jomon period (around 10,000 B.C. to 7,500 B.C.)The latest artifact was excavated from a layer of earth dating from the late Paleolithic period (around 30,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C.) in the town of Takarabe, officials said.” +++

Animals in Palaeolithic Japan

Yabe's elk

In “A Cultural Anthropological Perspective on the Question of Early and Middle Palaeolithic Cultures in Japan,” Charles T. Keally wrote: The animals of Palaeolithic Japan “were predominantly temperate-forest species (Kawamura 1991:217). More than half were endemic, that is, species that evolved locally in Japan. There were also a few species from the warm-temperate forest of South China. These probably arrived sometime between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago. But generally the Japanese fauna were not closely tied to the continent. More than half the species are still in Japan today. [Source: Charles T. Keally, “A Cultural Anthropological Perspective on the Question of Early and Middle Palaeolithic Cultures in Japan,” May 1993 ^-^]

“The composition of this early fauna included a large variety of large, medium and small animal species. There were elephants (Stegodon and Mammuthus), rhinoceroses, Yabe’s elk or extinct giant deer, two species of deer (Cervus), musk deer (Moschus), milu (Elaphurus), and several bovids (Bubalus, Buffelus, Bibos geron and Bison). Both an extinct wild boar and the wild boar still common in Japan existed at this time. There were also many kinds of weasels, badgers, martens, foxes, racoon dog, hedgehogs, shrews, moles, shrew moles, hamsters, wood lemmings, voles, mice, dormouses, bats, and hares. Among the possibly dangerous species found in Japan at this time were large cats (Felis spp.), wolf (Canis lupus), and bears (Ursus sp. and Selenarctos thibetanus). ^-^

“During the occupations of Babadan A Strata 32,33, Aobayama B Stratum 11d and Babadan A Stratum 20 (about 300,000-130,000 yrs), the animals were mainly temperate species and predominantly endemic, with an increase in the proportion of extant species (Kawamura 1991:218). Some earlier species became extinct, most notably the elephants and rhinoceroses, but similar species replaced these in most cases. The most notably change was the appearance of the Naumann’s elephant (Kawamura 1991:217). At least 8 species of insectivores have been identified, 9 species of rodents, 6 species of bats, 3 or 4 species of weasels, 2 species of badgers, the extant wild boar, deer, racoon dog, hare, and newly the Japanese monkey (Kawamura et al. 1989:320-322). There are also some species that have not been recorded but which might have existed, judging from the fauna of the preceeding and succeeding periods: Yabe’s elk, musk deer, wolf, bears (possibly Ursus arctos), and large cats (possibly the leopard Panthera pardus, tiger P. tigris and puma Felis sp.).” ^-^

Large Animals and Hunting in Paleolithic Japan

According to Heritage of Japan: Mammoths, Siberian lions, Naumann’s elephants, moose, Great elks, Yabe’s giant deer, wild cattle, bison, asses, horses, bears, wolves, tigers roamed Paleolithic Japan until around 12,000 years ago and then suddenly disappeared. Five different species of elephants once inhabited Japan. Fossils of the Stegodon aurorae Matsumoto (Akebono elephant) and their tracks have been found at various sites in Japan. They and the other four species of elephants lived in Japan area between three million years ago until about a million years ago. Mammoths lived only in the north and was not found outside of Hokkaido and the Sakkhalin Islands. [Source: Heritage of Japan ]

“The climate of Japan during much of the Paleolithic period was subtropical. The change to a colder climate may have contributed to the disappearance of some large animals, but also enabled others to arrive from the Asian mainland. From about 40,000 years ago Naumann Elephants (Paleoloxodon naumanni), big-horned elk or giant deer crossed over from the Asian continent during the ice age to Japan where it was warmer.

“Around 35,000 years ago, people followed the movement of the animals. Hokkaido, which is an island today, was still part of the continent then, and the Tsugaru Straight between the current Hokkaido Island and the Honshu Island was deep but froze in winter, thus enabling people to travel further south.

“Excavations show that prehistoric people who were living by the shores of Lake Nojiri in present-day Nagano Prefecture (west of present-day Tokyo) hunted the Naumann Elephants by driving them towards the lake or into the wetlands nearby. Furumi, at the foot of Mount Madarao, and on the shores of Lake Nojiri, has been a site of human settlement until about 30,000 years ago. Prehistoric people in Japan hunted with stone implements such as spears made from obsidian obtained from the area around Wada Pass in the Nagano area. They also collected fruit and berries such as hazelnuts and Pinus koriaiensis. The climate became progressively colder until 12,000 years ago. Many experts believe animals such as the Naumann Elephants and giant deer were hunted to extinction.

Nauman’s Elephants

Nauman’s Elephants

Nauman’s elephant (Palaeoloxodon naumanni) is an extinct species belonging to the genus Palaeoloxodon that lived in Southern Japan in the late Pleistocene about 500,000 to 15,000 years ago. It is named after Heinrich Edmund Naumann who discovered the first fossils at Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Japan. Palaeoloxodon naumanni is closely related to the modern Asian Elephant, Elephas maximus. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Similar to mammoths P. naumanni had a subcutaneous fat layer and long fur as an adaption to a cold environment. The species had a pair of long twisted tusks and a bulge on the head. These tusks grew more than 2.4 meters in length, 20 centimeters in diameter. It was a little smaller than Asian elephants averaging 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) to 3 meters (9.8 feet). It lived in forest which mixed subarctic conifers and cool-temperate deciduous trees. The ancestor of Palaeoloxodon naumanni moved from the Eurasian continent to Japan via land bridge; it subsequently evolved independently and spread throughout Japan after the land bridge was covered by sea. Palaeoloxodon naumanni was hunted by the inhabitants of the time. Some fossils were found around Lake Nojiri (Nagano, Japan) together with a lot of stone tools or bone tools. +

In 1860, the first fossil record was found at Yokosuka and the bottom of Seto Inland Sea, Japan. Heinrich Edmund Naumann researched and reported these fossils in “Ueber japanische Elephanten der Vorzeit.”(1882). Naumann classified the fossil as Elephas namadicus Falconer & Cautley. In 1924, Jiro Makiyama researched fossils which are found in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, Japan and reported the elephant was a new subspecies and denominated the fossil Elephas namadicus naumannni in “Notes on a fossil elephant from Sahamma, Totomi.”(1924). Tadao Kamei identified Elephas namadicus naumannni was a new species Palaeoloxodon naumanni from fossil found at Lake Nojiri. It is also called Elephas naumanni. +

Transition from Palaeolithic to Jomon

Charles T. Keally wrote: “The change from the "Palaeolithic" culture to the "Jomon" culture is a gradual transition. There is no hint of a clear break, or disconformity, between the two cultures in either the cultural materials or the dates. This transition occurs over a period of several cultural phases and 8,000 to 14,000 years, depending on how narrowly or broadly one looks at the "transition" (Kudo 2005; Keally, Taniguchi & Kuzmin 2003). [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

“The last clearly "Palaeolithic" cultural phases are distinguished by (1) knife-shaped stone tools and (2) stone points (or projectile points). These two phases date about 23,000 to 19,000 years ago. The narrowly defined "transition" occurs across three cultural phases, distinguished by (1) microblades and microcores, (2) the Mikoshiba-Chojakubo group of stone tools with small amounts of plain pottery, and (3) linear-relief pottery. The Mikoshiba-Chojakubo group of stone tools includes large ax- or adz-like tools and large foliate projectile points. Arrowheads are present but rare. The Linear-relief Pottery phase stone tools include axes, and querns and grinders. Arrowheads are common in these sites. Microblades and microcores are distinctive of many Linear-relief Pottery sites in western Japan; stemmed projectile points are distinctive of Linear-relief Pottery sites in eastern Japan. But pottery is scarce in all sites of these phases. These three cultural phases date about 18,000 to 13,000 years ago. ++

“The first "Jomon" cultural phase is distinguished by punctate-marked pottery, nail-impressed pottery and cord-marked pottery. The details of the pottery sequence are not clear, and pottery is generally still scarce in the sites. Stone tools include arrowheads, and querns and grinders, but much is still not clear about the tool assemblages of this phase. This first "Jomon" phase dates about 13,500 to 11,500 years ago. But the truly "typical" Jomon culture begins from about 11,500 years ago, with what is called the Yoriitomon Pottery phase in the Kanto Region, and with the radical increase in the quantities of pottery found in the sites and the first appearance of shellmounds.”++

Mysterious Underwater "Pyramid" Near Okinawa

Masaaki Kimura, a marine geologist at the University of the Ryukyus in Japan, believes that submerged stone structures lying in waters off Yonaguni Jima, an island between Okinawa and Taiwan, are the ruins of a Japanese Atlantis—an ancient city sunk by an earthquake about 2,000 years ago. Kimura has been diving at the site for more than 15 years, measuring and mapping the formations .Each dive he says firms up his conviction that the formations are the remains of a 5,000-year-old city."The largest structure looks like a complicated, monolithic, stepped pyramid that rises from a depth of 25 meters [82 feet]," Kimura told a scientific conference in June, 2007. [Source: Julian Ryall, National Geographic News, September 19, 2007 ~^~]

Julian Ryall wrote in National Geographic News, “Yonaguni Jima is an island that lies near the southern tip of Japan’s Ryukyu archipelago, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) off the eastern coast of Taiwan (see map). A local diver first noticed the Yonaguni formations in 1986, after which a promontory on the island was unofficially renamed Iseki Hanto, or Ruins Point. The district of Yonaguni officially owns the formations, and tourists and researchers can freely dive at the site. ~^~

“Some experts believe that the structures could be all that’s left of Mu, a fabled Pacific civilization rumored to have vanished beneath the waves. Whoever created the city, most of it apparently sank in one of the huge seismic events that this part of the Pacific Rim is famous for, Kimura said. The world’s largest recorded tsunami struck Yonaguni Jima in April 1771 with an estimated height of more than 131 feet (40 meters), he noted, so such a fate might also have befallen the ancient civilization. ~^~

“Kimura said he has identified ten structures off Yonaguni and a further five related structures off the main island of Okinawa. In total the ruins cover an area spanning 984 feet by 492 feet (300 meters by 150 meters). The structures include the ruins of a castle, a triumphal arch, five temples, and at least one large stadium, all of which are connected by roads and water channels and are partly shielded by what could be huge retaining walls. ~^~

“Neither the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs nor the government of Okinawa Prefecture recognize the remains off Yonaguni as an important cultural property, said agency spokesperson Emiko Ishida. Neither of the government groups has carried out research or preservation work on the sites, she added, instead leaving any such efforts to professors and other interested individuals. ~^~

Yonaguni Monument

Explanations for the Mysterious Underwater "Pyramid"

Julian Ryall wrote in National Geographic News, “On hearing about the find, Kimura said, his initial impression was that the formations could be natural. But he changed his mind after his first dive. "I think it’s very difficult to explain away their origin as being purely natural, because of the vast amount of evidence of man’s influence on the structures," he said. For example, Kimura said, he has identified quarry marks in the stone, rudimentary characters etched onto carved faces, and rocks sculpted into the likenesses of animals. "The characters and animal monuments in the water, which I have been able to partially recover in my laboratory, suggest the culture comes from the Asian continent," he said. "One example I have described as an underwater sphinx resembles a Chinese or ancient Okinawan king." [Source: Julian Ryall, National Geographic News, September 19, 2007 ~^~]

“Kimura believes the ruins date back to at least 5,000 years, based on the dates of stalactites found inside underwater caves that he says sank with the city. And structures similar to the ruins sitting on the nearby coast have yielded charcoal dated to 1,600 years ago—a possible indication of ancient human inhabitants, Kimura added. But more direct evidence of human involvement with the site has been harder to come by. "Pottery and wood do not last on the bottom of the ocean, but we are interested in further research on a relief at the site that is apparently painted and resembles a cow," Kimura said. "We want to determine the makeup of the paint. I would also like to carry out subsurface research."~^~

“But like other stories of sunken cities, Kimura’s claims have attracted controversy. "I'm not convinced that any of the major features or structures are manmade steps or terraces, but that they're all natural," said Robert Schoch, a professor of science and mathematics at Boston University who has dived at the site. "It’s basic geology and classic stratigraphy for sandstones, which tend to break along planes and give you these very straight edges, particularly in an area with lots of faults and tectonic activity." ~^~

“Toru Ouchi, an associate professor of seismology at Kobe University, supports Kimura’s hypothesis. Ouchi said that he has never seen tectonic activity having such an effect on a landscape either above or below the water. "I've dived there as well and touched the pyramid," he said. "What Professor Kimura says is not exaggerated at all. It’s easy to tell that those relics were not caused by earthquakes." ~^~

Boston University’s Schoch, meanwhile, is just as certain that the Yonaguni formations are natural. He suggests that holes in the rock, which Kimura believes were used to support posts, were merely created by underwater eddies scouring at depressions. Lines of smaller holes were formed by marine creatures exploiting a seam in the rock, he said. "The first time I dived there, I knew it was not artificial," Schoch said. "It’s not as regular as many people claim, and the right angles and symmetry don't add up in many places." ~^~

Yomaguni Monument

He emphasizes that he is not accusing anyone of deliberately falsifying evidence. But many of the photos tend to give a perfect view of the site, making the lines look as regular as possible, he said. Schoch also says he has seen what Kimura believes to be renderings of animals and human faces at the site. "Professor Kimura says he has seen some kind of writing or images, but they are just scratches on a rock that are natural," he said. "He interprets them as being manmade, but I don't know where he’s coming from."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo; Mammoth: Hokkaido Library, Nauman's elephant: Kurosaki City; Yabe's Elk: Sagamihara City Science Museum.

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated January 2017

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