ISHIGAKI, OKINAWA PREF. – Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture could hold the largest Old Stone Age site discovered in East Asia.
More than 1,000 human bones and fragments, possibly from about a dozen men and women, have been uncovered so far by the excavation project in the Shirahosaonetabaru cave by Painushima Ishigaki Airport.
Some of the pieces date back 24,000 years, making them the oldest human remains found in Japan that can be precisely dated, researchers at the site said.
This is “one of the biggest Paleolithic ruins in East Asia,” said Naomi Doi, a former associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus. “I’m a lucky anthropologist.”
“The bones are fossilized and heavy. I can’t find words to tell you how I felt when I held them in my hands,” Doi said.
Research into the bones and the DNA in them is expected to shed light on how Old Stone Age humans lived on the island at the southern tip of the East China Sea after migrating from Eurasia.
The five-year excavation is set to end this month, but the ruins will be preserved, said Hisayoshi Nakaza, leader of the research team at the Okinawa Prefectural Archaeological Center.
The center will hold talks with the prefectural education board and the Cultural Affairs Agency on the future use of the 200-sq.-meter site, Nakaza said.
The cave was formed in limestone through erosion. While many human bone fragments were discovered, no stone tools have been found in it.
Reiko Kono, senior researcher at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, is trying to reconstruct facial features in 3-D from skull fragments through computed tomography analysis.
“We can obtain information on how humans lived at that time by analyzing how their physical constitutions were and how they used their muscles,” Kono said.
Further research needs to be conducted as to whether the people were ancestors of the Jomon Period, prehistoric hunter-gatherers whose culture, characterized by pottery decorated with rope patterns, once flourished in the Japanese archipelago.
Researchers, including Yosuke Kaifu, the head of the museum’s human history research group, believe humans reached the islands of Okinawa some 30,000 years ago by boat from Taiwan, which was still connected to the continent.
To back up their theory, in mid-July the team will attempt to sail from Japan’s westernmost island of Yonaguni to Iriomote Island on a boat made of plant materials.