8,000-year-old pottery oldest found in Okinawa

December 06, 2013

By SHUNSUKE NAKAMURA/ Senior Staff Writer

NANJO, Okinawa Prefecture--Pottery unearthed at a cave site in southern Japan dates back 8,000 years, making it the oldest in Okinawa Prefecture. The find also helps to shed light on a mysterious 10,000-year gap following the discovery of Minatogawa Man.

The results of the study by the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, announced Nov. 21, are firm evidence of humans in the Okinawa region before the Jomon Pottery Culture (c. 8,000 B.C.-300 B.C.) got started.

The artifacts, which were discovered at the Sakitari Cave site in Nanjo earlier this year, are the first evidence of such early human settlement on the Nansei Islands in southwestern Japan. The finds raise questions in continuing debate on the origin of the Japanese people.

Twenty or so pottery fragments were found at the site. Their outer surfaces bear "oshibikimon" pressed and pulled patterns with a spatulate implement, which are unusual for Okinawa. Their age was determined using carbon dating on snail shells found in the same layer of sediment about 2.5 meters below the surface. The layer immediately above contains Jokonmon pottery from nearly 5,000 years ago.

The artifacts are much older than Nanto Tsumegatamon (patterns made by raking nails) and Mumon (unadorned) pottery, which were the oldest clearly identifiable pottery from an excavation in Okinawa and date back approximately 6,000 to 7,000 years ago.

The Okinawan region also holds the key to the debate over where the Japanese people came from. That is because Paleolithic human bones from more than 10,000 years ago that are not preserved easily on the Japanese archipelago's main islands are collected here and preserved by the calcareous soil.

The Minatogawa Man, whose 18,000-year-old bones were found in the town of Yaese, is the best of these specimens, but after him the evidence is blank for a period of more than 10,000 years. This is because no bones, pottery or other manmade objects have yet been found. However, a number of finds have started to fill in that blank space in recent years, including a set of bones and stone artifacts at least 12,000 years old discovered in the fall of 2012 in Sakitari Cave.

The Ryukyu Islands may have something to do with the original route the Jomon people used to enter Japan, and the Minatogawa Man may be related to them. According to one theory, humans temporarily vacated Okinawa after the time of the Minatogawa Man.

"There is hope for a discovery of human bones (from this period), and this would provide clues connecting Paleolithic man with the Jomon people," said a museum official.

By SHUNSUKE NAKAMURA/ Senior Staff Writer
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Oshibikimon pottery excavated from a site in Sakitari Cave in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture (Shunsuke Nakamura)

Oshibikimon pottery excavated from a site in Sakitari Cave in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture (Shunsuke Nakamura)

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  • Oshibikimon pottery excavated from a site in Sakitari Cave in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture (Shunsuke Nakamura)
  • The cave entrance at the excavation site in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture (Shunsuke Nakamura)
  • The Asahi Shimbun

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