Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The First Okinawans

Prehistoric Okinawa

Who were the first humans to arrive in the Ryukyu Islands? How did they get there?  What was life like?  How did they survive?  When did they become “Okinawans”?  

The word “prehistoric” refers to the time from when humans first appeared until written records started.  The significance of this is that we must search for clues left behind (human remains, tools, and other artifacts) to figure out the answers to these questions.  For Okinawa, prehistory is thought to extend from about 7,000 B.C. to 1200 A.D.

The First Arrivals

The earliest human remains dating to 30,000 B.C. were found in Naha.  Another set of remains found in Minatogawa goes back to 18,000 B.C.  But continuous human activity in the Ryukyu Islands can only be traced back to 3,000 B.C. 

Research about these early days still continues.  By knowing how people travelled, and by comparing archaeological findings, the following picture emerges as one possibility.  This summary is based mainly on the writings of Pearson and Sakihara.

Ocean travel in Dugout Canoes

To get to the Ryukyu Islands you needed to cross the sea.  The earliest boats were simple dugout canoes.  They were powered by a sail or by oars.  Straying too far from shore was risky business.  Travelers would want to keep land in sight at all times.

From Kyushu to Okinawa Island lies a string of small islands close enough together that land was always in sight.  Likewise, Yaeyama and Miyako are linked to Taiwan by another series of islands. People from Japan in the north could work their way to Okinawa by canoe. Travelers from Southeast Asia and China in the south could reach Yaeyama and Miyako. 

Between Miyako and Okinawa lies 175 miles of nothing but ocean.  The long distance, combined with typhoons in that region, made the journey between the north and south Ryukyu Islands tough and risky.  These travel restrictions led to separate developments in the two island groups.  See my post "Okinawa - Location is Destiny" for more on geography.

Northern Islands and Okinawa Settlements came from Japan

Tools and pottery found in ancient sites in Okinawa are similar to those discovered in Kyushu. The islands nearest to Kyushu saw human activity as early as 3,000 B.C.  Descendants of those people moved south to Amami Oshima and then Okinawa some 500 to 1,000 years later, between 2,500 B.C. and 2,000 B.C.  This culture lasted until about 200 A.D. 

Northern Island Lifestyle

These early islanders were hunter-gathers, living off the sea and the land.  They caught fish and shellfish. They hunted and trapped wild pigs. And they ate vegetables that grew naturally around them.  They brought domesticated dogs with them.

Homes were built from large coral rock, away from the sea.  Houses were generally rectangle-shaped.  Each had a small hearth and pit for cooking. 

Tools for cutting and hammering were made of stone. Bones were used to make pins and needles. Pottery jars had simple designs.  Shells were crafted into ornaments.

Southern Island Settlements came from Southeast Asia and Taiwan

Just as island-hopping linked Japan all the way to Okinawa island, in the same way were the southern islands connected to Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Differences between North and South Cultures

Artifacts found on the southern islands are similar to those seen in Taiwan, Philippines and other Southeast Asian cultures.  The pottery is much different from Amami and Okinawa.  The discovery of hoes in the South points to a strong farming society.  Different groups may have co-existed on the southern islands up until 1,000 A.D. 

Contacts with the Outside World

The early settlers were isolated and had little interaction with the outsiders.  Wayward boats or shipwrecked survivors would have washed ashore as the Black Current or typhoons swept them from the south toward the islands. 

Sporadic trade with China started around 200 B.C. 

Contact between the north and south islands began around 200 A.D.  Trade with China and Korea also increased and became more regular. 

Village Society Develops

Small permanent villages emerged sometime after 200 A.D.  Advances in farming methods needed an organized community effort to plant, grow and harvest crops.  Shallow sea fishing also continued.  The village culture continued until the end of the prehistoric period.

The Okinawan Language Appears

The Okinawan and Japanese languages were once the same. But they split apart sometime between 0 A.D. and 500 A.D.  Today they are completely separate languages and a person who speaks one cannot understand the other.  In fact, Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama each developed their own dialects.

Okinawa is “Born”

Starting around 600 A.D. Chinese and Japanese documents began to refer to the islands as a distinct location.  Documents from the Chinese Sui Dynasty (589 to 618 A.D.) talk about “Liu-Chiu” (Ryukyu).  Japan records mention “Okinawa” around 616 A.D.   

And the Rest, as They Say, is History

Advances in technology and culture continued. Prehistory ended when written language was introduced in 1187 A.D.    A united Ryukyu Kingdom came into being some 200 years later.  That kingdom became a vibrant international trading center for the Asian region for many years to follow.

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