A map of Japan showing the fateful
site of Sakushukotoni-gawa on Hokkaido.
Origins of the Ainu
by Gary Crawford
The ringing telephone broke the evening silence. It was the fall of 1983, and
my research partner, Professor Masakazu Yoshizaki, was calling from
"Gary, I have some news," Yoshi said. "We have a few grains of barley from a
site on the Hokkaido University campus. I think you should come and look at
The Japanese language is notorious for its ambiguity, so I wasn't quite sure of
the full meaning of what I had just heard. But I didn't need to know much more.
Though it may sound like a trivial piece of news to you, I knew something was
up, and it deserved closer scrutiny. My teaching schedule at the University of
Toronto kept me from hopping on a plane for several months, but when I finally
got to the lab on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, I realized the
full import of Yoshi's news - namely, that the history of Hokkaido's indigenous
people, the Ainu, was about to be rewritten.
Since the mid-1970s I had been investigating the relationship between plants
and people in prehistoric northeastern Japan, particularly Hokkaido, using an
archeological tool called flotation. The widespread use of this technique
beginning in the 1960s sparked a quiet revolution in archeology. Flotation
facilitates the collection of plant remains, mainly seeds and charcoal,
preserved by burning in oxygen-poor environments such as the depths of a
fireplace. Under these circumstances, seeds don't oxidize to ashy dust. One can
recover the resulting carbonized seeds by sampling soil from ancient hearths,
floors, pits, garbage dumps, and the like. One places the soil gently in water,
stirs it so the carbonized material floats to the surface, and then decants the
water and its floating contents through a fine mesh, which traps the floating
plant material while allowing the water to pass through.
A flotation screen with a recovered sample.
Until the advent of flotation, we couldn't systematically explore early plant
use, plant domestication, the local environmental impact of people, and so on.
Archeologists had only a limited appreciation of this crucial aspect of
prehistoric human life. Wherever we introduced flotation, our perspective on
early human life changed, often dramatically. Little did I know just how
dramatically it would change our interpretation of the archeology of
The archeological grain from Sakushukotoni-gawa ("gawa" means river), as
the campus site is known, dated to A.D. 700 to 900. The site is contemporaneous
with the medieval Japanese to the south, who had been forging a nation-state
for several centuries. The immediate predecessors of the Ainu, who are the
native people of northeastern Japan, occupied the site. Many archeologists
consider the Ainu to be the last living descendants of the Jomonpeople,
who lived throughout Japan from as early as 13,000 years ago. The Jomon are
known for their elaborate earthenware, which they often decorated with cord
(rope) impressions, and for their stone tools, pit-house villages, and, by 1500
B.C., elaborate cemeteries marked by stone circles or high earth embankments.
To a large degree, the Jomon relied on hunting, fishing, and collecting plants
and shellfish for their subsistence.
An early Jomon
Archeologists find it useful to interpret archeological cultures by relating
what they find to existing or historically recorded direct descendants of those
cultures. This is quite common in the New World, where many traditional
Amerindian cultures known archeologically were also observed and recorded by
Europeans. Even today many Amerindians continue to live much as they did in the
past, so the continuity with the archeological record is usually indisputable
and extremely informative.
To a large extent, this also seemed to be the case in northeastern Japan.
Archeologists and historians have long described the Ainu, like the Jomon, as
hunter-fisher-collectors and, because the two peoples lived in the same region,
they had few qualms about assuming the Ainu were living representatives of
Jomon culture. However, the Ainu, at least in the last few centuries according
to historic records, lived in above-ground, rectangular dwellings and used
metal tools as well as wooden and ceramic bowls, pots, and dishes. These
characteristics contrast with those of the Jomon, but in the minds of
historians and archeologists it was the lack of agriculture in both cultures
that forged the link between the Ainu and Jomon cultures. Further bolstering
this opinion, the skeletal biology of Jomon populations demonstrates a strong
resemblance and therefore a close affinity to the Ainu. Justifiably, the Ainu
seemed a relic of a primitive hunting-and-gathering people who had inhabited
northeastern Japan for thousands of years.