YONAGUNI, OKINAWA PREF. – A team of Japanese and Taiwanese paddlers in a dugout canoe on Tuesday successfully replicated a hypothetical human migration between Taiwan and Okinawa about 30,000 years ago.
During the two-day, 200-kilometer voyage from Taitung County, southeastern Taiwan, to Yonaguni Island, Okinawa Prefecture, the team of five paddlers — one Taiwanese, three Japanese men and one Japanese woman — relied solely on the stars, sun and wind for their bearings.
They departed Taiwan on Sunday afternoon in their 7.6-meter-long, 70-centimeter-wide wooden canoe, crossing the Black Stream, which begins off the Philippines and flows northeastward past Japan.
The voyage was one of multiple research projects signed in 2017 between Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science and Taiwan’s National Museum of Prehistory. The team achieved success after two failed attempts in 2017 and 2018.
According to Yosuke Kaifu, 50, leader of the team who accompanied the canoe aboard an escort ship, Japanese archaeologists have found that early humans migrated to Japan via three routes, and one of them is along the course of the Black Stream. However, it is unknown how they actually traveled to the Japanese islands.
The project involving the two museums was intended to shed light on how difficult the journey would have been, Kaifu said.
“I was worried when (they) temporarily went off course, but am glad to see them arrive,” Kaifu said after the paddlers reached Yonaguni.
“It was a perfect voyage,” said Koji Hara, a 47-year-old lead paddler. “The Black Stream carried the canoe and all we did was steer it a little.” The five were tired, but did not have any health issues.
As the boat reached the island, it was welcomed by several hundred cheering local residents.
“They have all returned safely. I want to say ‘thank you’ to them,” said Mitsuko Maeso, a 71-old housewife living on Yonaguni.
“I can’t imagine how people traveled 30,000 years ago, but for this journey I think they risked their lives,” she said.
The discovery of relics dating back more than 30,000 years on several islands of the Ryukyu Archipelago made archaeologists speculate that a group of ancient settlers migrated to Japan from what is now Taiwan in the Paleolithic era, which extends from some 2.6 million years ago to around 15,000 years ago.
Kaifu has said that even if the project is successful, he would not jump to the conclusion that some ancestors of the Japanese people came from Taiwan, but at least it would show the possibility is quite high.
The other two routes for early human migration to Japan are from the Korean Peninsula across the Tsushima Strait about 38,000 years ago and from Eurasia across the Tsugaru Strait that separates the main islands of Honshu and Hokkaido.
Before Kaifu persuaded the two museums to fund the project, he initiated a similar project in 2016 when two primitive canoes made from local straw departed from Yonaguni Island bound for Taiwan. They only managed to reach the neighboring island of Iriomote, about 75 km away.
The 2017 voyage, on a boat made of bamboo and rattan grown in Taiwan, made it from Dawu Township, Taitung County, to Green Island, which is about 66 km away.
The 2018 boat was also made of bamboo and rattan, but it was smaller and carried fewer people. It did not last long on the open sea.