National / History

Japanese research team turns to dugout canoe to trace how archipelago's first humans arrived


A Japanese team pursuing a multiyear project to learn how humans came to the Japanese archipelago 30,000 years ago is planning another experiment next summer, this time with a new approach: a dugout canoe.

As part of the project, which started in 2016, the team has previously tested a straw boat and a bamboo raft to reproduce how people may have traveled from Taiwan to Japan, but to no avail.

The team, led by the National Museum of Nature and Science, is now pinning its hopes on a dugout canoe, which is currently being built for a voyage from Taiwan to the southern island of Yonaguni, Okinawa Prefecture.

Financially, the team has already procured more than ¥30 million, the target it set for online fundraising to pay for costs not covered by the team’s research expenses, such as those to prepare additional boats for safety and to film the experiment for the record.

“We want to come as close as possible to an answer to the big mystery of how our ancestors succeeded with the great voyage,” said Yosuke Kaifu, a museum official who represents the team.

It is known that humans had settled in what is now Okinawa by 30,000 years ago, and the team assumes that people traveled from Taiwan, which was part of the Eurasian continent at that time. But no remains of boats have been discovered and how early settlers arrived there remains unknown.

Past experiments proved that a straw boat and a bamboo raft are stable but not fast enough to withstand the strong currents between Taiwan and Yonaguni Island.

A dugout canoe can easily capsize but is likely to go faster, according to the team.

The team is using primitive technology to make the canoe. They made an ax by attaching a wooden handle to stoneware, then used it to cut down a big Japanese cedar tree and hollow out its interior.

The canoe will not be equipped with sails, due to a lack of evidence that they were used even in the Jomon Period, which is believed to have run roughly from 13,000 years ago to 2,300 years ago.