Art is part of what makes us human. Primitive or otherwise, though, it is not only about painting pretty pictures, but also about the complex use of symbols and forms of language.
An Australian archaeologist once told me that he had listened to an Aboriginal man talk for three hours about the meaning of a bark painting he had made. What to the uninitiated may have appeared to be no more than an attractive but random series of dots and lines was, the awed archaeologist admitted, in fact part of a complex web of stories and ideas.
Despite the centrality of art to the human experience, however, the archaeological record of prehistoric art is rather patchy. While the renowned paleolithic cave paintings of southwestern France or the rock art of Australia are outstanding examples of prehistoric art, there are many areas of the world where the remains of such early art don’t exist — or haven’t yet been discovered.
Japan is one such region: Here, evidence of early prehistoric art is sparse. This is despite the fact that more than 5,000 paleolithic sites have been found to date in Japan — a huge number compared with many other parts of the world. Where Japan really comes into its own, of course, is with the ceramic arts of the Jomon Period that followed the Paleolithic Age, dating from around 8,000 B.C. through to the dawn of the Yayoi Period around 400 B.C.
While masterpieces of Jomon pottery can be seen in any local museum, there are also two places in Japan where it is possible to see cave art from a part of present-day Japan that was still prehistoric even just 2,000 years ago. These are the Temiya and Fugoppe caves in Otaru and Yoichi, southwest Hokkaido.
Like several of the main cave sites in France, Fugoppe was discovered by accident, in this case in 1950 by a schoolboy on a summer swimming trip from Sapporo. Temiya had been known from much earlier. John Milne, a British engineer employed by the Meiji government, visited the cave in 1879 and published a short note on its engravings the following year in the “Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan.”
Although the Temiya and Fugoppe caves are quite small — the former only 3 meters deep, with about 2.4 sq. meters of wall area covered by engravings; the latter around 7 meters deep and 7 meters high — both have a series of highly mysterious engravings carved into the soft rock of their walls.
At Temiya there are some 34 separate carved symbols, which were once thought to be a sort of runelike writing, but are now seen as simplified figures. Fugoppe has around 200 engravings that include people, boats and animals, as well as shamanistic figures with wings and feathers. The idea that the Temiya engravings could be fakes was entertained as early as the 19th century. Although he himself suggested that they were made by the Ainu, Milne did not rule out the possibility that the engravings were “the handicraft of some gentleman desirous of imposing upon the credulity of wandering archaeologists.” Recent excavations, however, have shown that both Temiya and Fugoppe date from the Epi-Jomon Period of the early centuries A.D.
On the main islands of Japan, the Yayoi Period saw the beginning of full-scale rice farming from about 400 B.C. This agriculture did not spread to Hokkaido until the 19th century, and the Epi-Jomon inhabitants of Hokkaido continued to hunt and gather while increasingly becoming involved in trade with the mainland Japanese.
Though relatively little-known, the Epi-Jomon culture of Hokkaido is a complex and fascinating phase of Japanese history. As well as influences from Japan to the south, Hokkaido was then strongly influenced by the present-day Russian Far East, and perhaps in consequence, the engravings at Temiya and Fugoppe are certainly very different from anything known from the Jomon Period.
In fact, the Hokkaido motifs are also different from many rock carvings known from eastern Siberia, making it difficult to discern any direct influence.
So what are the roots of the Hokkaido cave engravings?
One possibility is suggested by the large engraving of a boat and whale in the Fugoppe cave. Archaeologist Kiyoshi Yamaura of St. Paul’s University in Tokyo has proposed a link between these engravings and similar motifs of boats and whales found at two cave sites in South Korea. The sea between Japan and Korea was known as a good whaling ground in historic times, and it may be that whale-hunters from the Korean Peninsula reached Hokkaido at this time.
Along with the engravings, however, both caves have yielded evidence of occupation, including pots, stone tools and harpoon heads. These artifacts clearly belong to the Epi-Jomon culture, and it seems likely the engravings were made by the Epi-Jomon ancestors of the Ainu — perhaps with some influence from the art styles of the Korean Peninsula.
Both Temiya and Fugoppe are nationally listed sites, and have been preserved as small site museums, which are easily visited from Sapporo. Fugoppe is currently closed for repair work until April 2004, but photographs of the engravings can be seen at the Yoichi Suisan Museum.