Kennewick Man skull

It had long been thought that the first Americans were hunters who crossed a land bridge across the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska about 13,500 years ago and followed an “ice-free corridor” southward though glacier-covered North America, presumably chasing mammoths and mastodons as they went. Studies of skull and facial structures indicates these people were closely related to the Jomon people of Japan (See Below). The skull and facial structures of the Jomon people are in fact more similar to the skull and facial structures of Americans and Europeans than to mainland Asians.

In 1996, scientists found a complete skeleton of a 9,300-year-old man in Kennewick, Washington, USA, with "apparently Caucasoid" features similar to those found on Jomon people skulls. This so called "Kennewick Man" is thought to have descended from Jomon people or a common ancestors of the Jomon people.

The oldest form of human DNA recovered in North America — dated to be around 10,300 years old — is common in type to that found in Japan and Tibet. Similar DNA has been found in native Americans all the way down the west coast of North and South America. These people had established themselves in America when a second migration came across the Bering Strait around 5,000 years ago. This second migration is most closely related to native Americans found in the United States today.

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History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Were the First Americans Fishermen from Japan?

Kennewick Man stone tool

The latest and most widely accepted theory on the first Americans is that they were fishermen who traveled in small boats along the coasts of eastern Asia and western America, bridging the two continents by island hoping between Siberia and Alaska. Some scientists have theorized they originated from Japan and followed a near continuous belt of kelp forests, rich in fish and other sea creatures, that have existed in coastal waters from Japan to Alaska to southern California and flourished even during the Ice Age.

Douglas Preston wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Sometime around 15,000 years ago, the new theory goes, coastal Asian groups began working their way along the shoreline of ancient Beringia—the sea was much lower then—from Japan and Kamchatka Peninsula to Alaska and beyond. This is not as crazy a journey as it sounds. As long as the voyagers were hugging the coast, they would have plenty of fresh water and food. Cold-climate coasts furnish a variety of animals, from seals and birds to fish and shellfish, as well as driftwood, to make fires. The thousands of islands and their inlets would have provided security and shelter. To show that such a sea journey was possible, in 1999 and 2000 an American named Jon Turk paddled a kayak from Japan to Alaska following the route of the presumed Jomon migration. Anthropologists have nicknamed this route the “Kelp Highway.” [Source: Douglas Preston, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2014]

Jon Erlandson, an archeologist at the University of Oregon, wrote an article New Scientist magazine in 2007, promoting this theory. On the first people to arrive in America he said, “I think they were just moving along the coast and exploring. It was like a kelp highway.” He said these people could have arrived sometime after 16,000 years ago when the massive glaciers started retreating from the outer northwest coast of North America.

Backing up this assertion is evidence that the coastlines of northeastern Asia and northwestern America were not as inhospitable as previously thought and could have easily supported migrating, seafaring communities. In the 1990s evidence emerged of a community living on shellfish at a site called Monte Verde on an island off the Chilean coast around 14,850 years ago. It is likely these people arrived by boat. The ice-free corridor mentioned above was blocked until 13,000 years ago.

Jomon stone tools

There is evidence that people living on Honshu set out across the North Pacific more than 20,000 years ago to Kozushima, an island 50 kilometers away, to collect a type of volcanic glass to make tools. Erland believes these people made the journey in animal skin boats and could have used the same boats to travel northward to Hokkaido, the Kuril islands and Kamchatka Peninsula, all of which, even today, are rich in game and fish. They then continued onto to Alaska and North America. Recently the remains of a seafarer, dated to between 13,000 and 13,200 years old, were found in the Channel Islands off southern California.

In the April 2008 issue of Science, University of Oregon professor Dennis Jenkins said that he found some fossilized pieces of excrement in Oregon dated to be 14,300 years old. Using a new technique called polymerase chain reaction — which allows researchers to “unzip” minute fragments of DNA and make millions of duplicates so they can be tested — he was able to determine the excrement was human and was linked genetically to native Americans and Asians.

It had long been thought that the first Americans were hunters who crossed a land bridge across the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska about 13,500 years ago and followed an “ice-free corridor” southward though glacier-covered North America, presumably chasing mammoths and mastodons as they went.According to this theory about 14,500 years ago, a 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) north-south corridor opened up between the Cordilleran ice sheet — which covered most of what is now British Colombia in Canada — and the much larger Laurentide ice sheet, which covered most of the rest of Canada. This corridor, the theory does, brought down the blockade that prevented inhabitants of Asia from migrating southward into the Americas. [Source: AFP-JIJI, August 11, 2016 ^^^]

Plant and Animal DNA Suggests First Americans Took the Coastal Route

In the August 2016 Nature article, archaeologists said that plant and animal DNA buried under two Canadian lakes corroborated the theory that the first Americans travelled along the coasts of northeasternern Asia, southern Alaska and northwestern America rather than through an ice-free corridor that extended from Alaska to Montana. The analysis, led by palaeo-geneticist Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, provides strong evidence that the passageway became habitable 12,600 years ago, nearly 1,000 years after appearance of the Clovis people —once thought to be the first Americans—and even longer after other, pre-Clovis cultures settled the Americas. [Source: Ewen Callaway, Nature magazine on August 11, 2016 ||+||]

Ewen Callaway wrote in Nature: “To build a picture of the habitat as it crept out of the Ice Age, Willerslev’s team analysed DNA in cores taken from beneath two lakes in what was the last stretch of the corridor to melt. The first plant life—thin grasses and sedges—dates back just 12,600 years. The region later became lusher, with sagebrush, buttercups and even roses, followed by willow and poplar trees. This habitat attracted bison first, and later mammoths, elk, voles and the occasional bald eagle. Around 11,500 years ago, the corridor began to resemble the pine and spruce boreal forests of today’s landscape. The region’s bounty must eventually have tempted hunter-gatherers. But the dates rule out its use as a corridor by Clovis people and earlier Americans to colonize the Americas, says Willerslev. Instead, both probably skirted the Pacific coast, perhaps by boat. ||+||

Jomon whale bone tools

“Loren Davis, an archaeologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, agrees: “Now that the ice-free corridor has been shown to be dead in the water—no pun intended—we can start to look at something like a coastal migration route.” “Discovering sites along these routes won’t be easy, because most are now likely to be underwater. But this summer, Davis and his colleagues began surveying areas of the Pacific Ocean, such as former bays and estuaries that might have served as pit stops for the first Americans. In 2017, the team will start to collect marine sediments to look for signs of habitation, such as stone artefacts or ancient human DNA. Willerslev hopes to be part of the searches, and thinks that recreating these once-coastal habitats through DNA sequencing could prove to be a valuable tool. The fact that early humans advanced to the Americas despite continent-sized glaciers standing in the way has also prompted him to rethink the conventional wisdom that early humans, like other animals, migrated solely in search of food. “Just like people today are trying to reach the top of Mount Everest or the South Pole, I'm sure these hunter-gatherers were also explorers and curious about what would be on the other side of these glacier caps,” he says. “When you first reach California, why would you go further? Why not just stay in the Bay Area?”“ ||+||

Genetic Links Between Early Americans and Early Japanese

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: A 1994 study concluded that ancestral lineages of Ainu people migrated across Beringia carrying HTLV-I virus (subtype A) to the American continent in the Paleolithic era. Phlylogenetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA and HLA type analysis suggest there is a relationship between Japanese and Paleo-Indians in South America (DRB10802 was found to be present in almost all Amerindians, Siberian Eskimos and Japanese Ainu but specifically two Meso and South Amerindian DRB1 alleles – DRB10411 and DRB1*0417- are also shared with Siberians and Asian Pacific coast populations (Ainu, Japanese and Taiwan) as well as Athabaskans and Eskimos (other First American inhabitants) with the exception of the Aleuts). [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,] “A 2000 American Scientist article suggested that the “highest frequencies of these four haplogroups occur in the Altai Mountain/Tuva/Lake Baikal region, implying that this general region gave rise to the founders of Native American populations. Otherwise, haplogroup B is absent in the vast majority of native Siberian populations, haplogroup A occurs at very low frequencies outside of Chukotka, and haplogroups C and D are the predominant mtDNA lineages in northern Asia.

“However, the presence of a certain control region mutation in haplogroups C and D may point to alternative source areas for ancestral Native Americans. This mutation appears in the majority of both haplogroup C and D mtDNAs in Native American populations, suggesting it is part of the original sequence motifs for both of them. Among all Asian and Siberian mtDNAs, however, this mutation only appears in haplogroup C mtDNAs from Mongolia and the Amur River region and in haplogroup D mtDNAs in the Japanese, Korean and Ainu. This distribution suggests that East Asia as well as southeast Siberia or Mongolia might be source areas or migration pathways for these haplogroups.”

Adachi N, and others in a study of “Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Jomon skeletons” assigned D1a (along with M7a, N9b) to ancient DNA recovered from 16 Jomon skeletons excavated from Funadomari site, Hokkaido, Japan. The fact that Hokkaido Jomons shared haplogroup D1 with Native Americans validates the hypothesized genetic affinity of the Jomon people to Native Americans, providing direct evidence for the genetic relationships between these populations… It appears that the genetic study of ancient populations in northern part of Japan brings important information to the understanding of human migration in northeast Asia and America. Adachi N, and others in “Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Jomon skeletons from the Funadomari site, Hokkaido, and its implication for the origins of Native American“, Am J Phys Anthropol. 2009 Mar;138(3):255-65. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.20923) ]

Siberia, Japan or Both: the Source of Native Americans

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: Some recent scholarship leaned towards South Siberia (between Altai mountains and the Amur valley) as the source of ancestral populations of the Americas. But a 2010 Russian study clarified that while mtDNA haplogroups C and D diversified in southern Siberia, the oldest lineages are found in eastern Asia. A 1996 American study on mtDNA concluded that the four New World founding haplogroups, were detected and likely originated in the two Mongolian populations of Khalkha and Daringaga: [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

The Russian study reported: “Based on the current distribution of mtDNA haplogroups, we propose that populations in east Central Asia represent the closest genetic link between the Old World and the New World. All four New World haplogroups [A, B, C, D] have been detected in Mongolian, central Chinese and Tibetan populations that delineate the only region in Asia where all four haplogroups exist and no population lacking any one of the haplogroups occurs. Thus, the narrow strip of east Central Asia that extends from Mongolia to the Pacific coast may have served as the starting point for the human migration that led to colonization of the New World. Furthermore, presence of the four.”

“New World haplogroups throughout the Americas, but a restricted distribution in Asia, suggests a single sampling of these haplotypes. The emerging mtDNA picture of genetic diversity in the Americas appears to support a single migration, perhaps sustained over a period of time, of modern humans that gave rise to all contemporary New World populations. This scenario still allows for the possibility of other ancient migrations whose populations did not survive or at least left no maternal, i e . , mtDNA, record of their occupation.”

“The latest general consensus according to a 2010 study “The Initial Peopling of the Americas...” however, is that modern Native American populations ultimately trace their gene pool to (at least 15 maternal lineages of) Asian groups who colonized northeast Siberia, including parts of Beringia, prior to the last glacial period. Native American populations arose from different contributing pools of ancestral populations – pre-LGM haplotypes of Asian ancestry; ancestral population(s) preserved in refugial areas during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) – and other groups from Beringia or eastern Siberia expanded into North America in the millennia after the initial Paleo-Indian migrations.

“Novel haplotypes and alleles arose in situ due to new mutation, eg. a temporally important differentiation stage in Beringia explains the predominance in Native Americans of private alleles and haplogroups such as the autosomal 9-repeat at microsatellite locus D9S1120, the Y chromosome haplogroup Q1a3a-M3, and the pan-American mtDNA haplogroups A2, B2, C1b, C1c, C1d, D1, and D4h3a. Other groups from Beringia or eastern Siberia expanded into North America in the millennia after the initial Paleo-Indian migrations. So admixture with population groups newly arrived from regions located west of Beringia would have resulted in the entry of additional Asian lineages into North America. This explains the presence of certain mtDNA haplogroups such as A2a, A2b, D2a, D3, and X2a only in populations of northern North America. Other recent data show that some native groups from northern North America harbor stronger genetic similarities with some eastern Siberian groups than with Native American groups located more in the South.

However, the 2010 study concluded that the Asian-founding lineages C1d were later arrivals than the other Siberian founding lineages. The study put entry times for other Siberian haplogroups at 15–18 thousand years ago (kya), for the post-LGM arrival from Beringia with early Paleo-Indians as well as for haplogroup X2a, which is thought to have arrived through an ice-free corridor. According to this study C1d was characterized by an expansion time of only 7.6–9.7 kya, and the 2010 Russian Derenko study supported this and clarified that “the C1 branch is represented by C1a subclade which is a sister clade of the Native American subclades C1b, C1c, and C1d, which are dated to 18.6±2.3 kya and most likely arose early – either in Beringia or at a very initial stage of the Paleoindian southward migration. The Asian C1a-branch derived likely from the same ancestral population as the three Native American subclades shows a relatively lower coalescence time varying from 2 to 8.5 kya (1.97±1.97 kya for synonymous clock rate and 8.57 (2.6; 14.75) kya for complete mtDNA clock rate), implying that its expansion from Beringia occurred long after the end of the LGM.

“Following from the foregoing, the bulk of the evidence suggests that the New World was colonized by certain common lineages (C and D haplogroups) that were ancestral to both the people of Japan and the Americas, rather than directly out of Japan itself. According to the Smithsonian Institution, “ancient skeletal remains show a range of physical attributes suggesting separate migrations of different populations of modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) from Asia. The handful of human skeletons dated over 8,000 years ago show some regional variation, but as a group their skulls differ markedly from the broad faces, prominent cheekbones, and round cranial vaults that characterize modern–day American Indians. These ancient specimens have long and narrow cranial vaults with short and relatively gracile faces. Two examples are the 9,400-year-old Spirit Cave Man from Nevada and the most recently discovered 8,900-year-old Kennewick Man found in Washington State in 1996. Physical anthropologists see a greater similarity in these crania to certain Old World populations such as Polynesians, Europeans, and the Ainu of Japan. Only one early specimen, Wizards Beach Man, a Nevada skeleton dated to 9,200 years ago, falls within the range of variability of contemporary American Indians, an exception that requires further scientific validation. Crania with American Indian morphology appears by at least 7,000 years ago. The similarity of the ancient crania to Polynesians suggested that one early source of migrants to the Americas was Asian circumpacific population

DNA From the Ancient Sican Culture in Peru Genetically Linked to People from Japan, Siberia and Taiwan

Sican funerary mask

A study published in 2009 revealed genetic links between people who inhabited northern Peru more than 1,000 years ago and the Ainu in Japan. Archaeology Daily reported: “Japanese physical anthropologist Kenichi Shinoda performed DNA tests on the remains of human bodies found in the East Tomb and West Tomb in the Bosque de Pomas Historical Sanctuary in Peru, which are part of the Sican Culture Archaeological Project, funded by Japan’s government. [Source: “DNA links found between ancient Peruvians and Japanese”,Archaeology Daily, January 11, 2009 |=|]

“The director of the Sican National Museum, Carlos Elera, told the El Comercio newspaper that Shinoda found that people who lived more than 1,000 years ago in what today is the Lambayeque region, about 800 kilometers north of Lima, had genetic links to the contemporaneous populations of Ecuador, Colombia, Siberia, Taiwan and to the Ainu people of northern Japan. The studies will be continued on descendents of the Mochica culture, from the same region, who are currently working on the Sican Project and with people who live in the vicinity of the Bosque de Pomac Historical Sanctuary. |=|

“According to Peruvian archaeologist Luis Chero, “Currently, the DNA results have great value because they can be understood to show that there were people who arrived in these zones from Asia and who then converted these zones into the great culture of the New World.” Sophisticated gold, silver and copper jewelry found in the tombs of the ancient Sican rulers and priests.” |=|

Kennewick Man

In 1996, scientists found a complete skeleton of a 9,300-year-old man in Kennewick, Washington, USA, with "apparently Caucasoid" features similar to those found on the skulls of Jomon people — early inhabitants of Japan. This so-called "Kennewick Man" is thought to have descended from Jomon people or a common ancestors of the Jomon people.

Douglas Preston wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “In the summer of 1996, two college students in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled on a human skull while wading in the shallows along the Columbia River. They called the police. The police brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson, who was puzzled by the skull, and he in turn contacted James Chatters, a local archaeologist. Chatters and the coroner returned to the site and, in the dying light of evening, plucked almost an entire skeleton from the mud and sand. They carried the bones back to Chatters’ lab and spread them out on a table. [Source: Douglas Preston, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2014 /~/]

“The skull, while clearly old, did not look Native American. At first glance, Chatters thought it might belong to an early pioneer or trapper. But the teeth were cavity-free (signaling a diet low in sugar and starch) and worn down to the roots—a combination characteristic of prehistoric teeth. Chatters then noted something embedded in the hipbone. It proved to be a stone spearpoint, which seemed to clinch that the remains were prehistoric. He sent a bone sample off for carbon dating. The results: It was more than 9,000 years old,” making Kennewick Man “one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas.” /~/

Kennewick Man’s Links to the Ainu and Jomon People in Japan

The discovery of Kennewick Man adds a major piece of evidence to the view that the Americas were first populated by people who traveled along the coast from Asia to North America rather than walking across the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to Alaska and migrating southward through the ice-free corridor into what is now the United States. “I believe these Asian coastal migrations were the first,” Owsley told Smithsonian magazine. “Then you’ve got a later wave of the people who give rise to Indians as we know them today.” [Source: Douglas Preston, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2014 \~]

Douglas Preston wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: Kennewick Man “does not belong to any living human population.” Owsley believes, he “belongs to an ancient population of seafarers who were America’s original settlers. They did not look like Native Americans. The few remains we have of these early people show they had longer, narrower skulls with smaller faces. These mysterious people have long since disappeared.” Judging from the shape of Kennewick Man’s “skull and bones, his closest living relatives appear to be the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, a remote archipelago 420 miles southeast of New Zealand, as well as the mysterious Ainu people of Japan. “Just think of Polynesians,” said Owsley. \~\

“Not that Kennewick Man himself was Polynesian. This is not Kon-Tiki in reverse; humans had not reached the Pacific Islands in his time period. Rather, he was descended from the same group of people who would later spread out over the Pacific and give rise to modern-day Polynesians. These people were maritime hunter-gatherers of the north Pacific coast; among them were the ancient Jomon, the original inhabitants of the Japanese Islands. The present-day Ainu people of Japan are thought to be descendants of the Jomon. Nineteenth-century photographs of the Ainu show individuals with light skin, heavy beards and sometimes light-colored eyes.

What became of those pioneers, Kennewick Man’s ancestors and companions? They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people, Owsley says. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups, though the signal is too weak to label the Native Americans “descendants.”

Whether this new account of the peopling of North America will stand up as more evidence comes in is not yet known. The bones of a 13,000-year-old teenage girl recently discovered in an underwater cave in Mexico, for example, are adding to the discussion. James Chatters, the first archaeologist to study Kennewick and a participant in the full analysis, reported earlier this year, along with colleagues, that the girl’s skull appears to have features in common with that of Kennewick Man and other Paleo-Americans, but she also possesses specific DNA signatures suggesting she shares female ancestry with Native Americans. Kennewick Man may still hold a key. The first effort to extract DNA from fragments of his bone failed, and the corps so far hasn’t allowed a better sample to be taken. A second effort to plumb the old fragments is underway at a laboratory in Denmark.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Hokkaido Library, Jomon Japan; Kennewick Man: Smithsonian magazine

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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