New discoveries from Okinawa and the Ryukyu Archipelago
Four hundred miles to the south of Japan is the island of Okinawa – the largest of the string of islands known as the Ryukyu Archipelago. Today the archipelago is warmer than mainland Japan: a semi-tropical paradise with wonderful sandy beaches surrounded by coral reefs. Indeed, the name Ryukyu can be translated from Chinese as ‘spheres of lapis lazuli’, referring to islands surrounded by brilliant blue lagoons, scattered in the East China Sea.
Despite this idyll, to many in the West, Okinawa conjures up terrifying images of World War II battlefields before its subjugation by the Americans, who used it as a stepping stone for the conquest of Japan itself. Today, Ryukyu is the southernmost prefecture of Japan. However, it is only 400 miles from both Taiwan and mainland China. How far has Ryuku always been part of Japan? Or are there cultural influences from China or Taiwan? Moreover, who were its erstwhile inhabitants? When did they first arrive? We know they were long-distance traders who developed a kingdom, but exactly how rich did they become?
Several decades of intensive government sponsored research make the islands one of the best studied areas in the world. A number of the sites are so important that they have been designated as World Heritage status. Yet, the region is still almost unknown internationally. So here we offer a round-up of the latest digs and discoveries from the islands of the coral seas to chart the rise, rise and rise of Ryukyu.
In charting the occupation of the islands, we wanted to know who were the first people on the islands? There are about six limestone cave and fissure sites on the islands that are providing answers. They have revealed human bones dating to around 30,000 to 20,000 years ago. The oldest evidence comes from the Yamashita-cho Cave, in an outcrop of coral limestone in Naha City, the prefectural capital of Okinawa. This site yielded the bones of a six year old girl who died around 32,000 years ago. A second site, the Minatogawa fissure in southern Okinawa Island, contained animal bones plus the skeletal remains of five humans dating to around 18,000 years ago.
These mysterious cave deposits indicate that a population of modern Homo sapiens, similar to those living in South China, probably entered the region from South China on ancient land bridges connected to the China mainland. The environment would have been cooler, without the coral reefs that mark the area today. However, the data caused a conundrum. There is a big gap in our information. To date, we have found no sites post-dating 18,000 years ago until about 6,500 years ago. So what happened to the earlier islanders? Why do we have no evidence for some 10,000 years?
Their islands shrank dramatically with rising sea levels at the end of the Pleistocene (from 18,000 down to 10,000 years ago) and it seems that they were left with too little territory to survive. However, it is strange that none of their sites have yielded any tools. We thought we had found their tools – in the form of notched, bone objects – but we now know they were simply produced by deer chewing antlers or bones. The people must have used stone tools, but where are they? In the case of Minatogawa, it is a fissure site in which debris flowed into a crack rather than a primary living site. Thus stone tools were probably deposited in some other location. The hunt continues to find out more about these early islanders.
Moving forward in time, past this puzzling gap, we come to the arrival of the Jomon people from Kyushu (the southern most part of Japan) about 6,500 years ago, whose only domesticated animal was the dog and who lived by hunting and gathering. The ancient environment of the islands was not easy. Though ancient coral reefs have been growing intermittently in the warm seas surrounding the Ryukyus for the past 1.6 million years, the present fringing reefs of the islands only became complete about 3,700 years ago – i.e. after the stabilisation of modern sea levels. It was probably this that allowed people to gain more food and live in larger settlements. Indeed, despite the arrival of different groups of Jomon people from Kyushu, around 6,500 to 5,000 years ago, it was not until around 3,000 years ago that we see an exponential increase in population – the measure that indicates successful colonisation. The Ryukyu Islands are certainly a fascinating place to study early human colonisation of islands. For, once the islands were successfully colonised, we see the increasing wealth of the region, as the next project on priceless shell bracelets aptly demonstrates…
There is a law of economics that says exotic = good = expensive. The ancient dwellers of the Ryukyu islands certainly exploited this rule, as our work illustrates!
The Ryukyu islands are at the northern limit of coral reef growth, and the coral reefs surrounding many of the islands support a wide variety of shells not found in the cooler waters surrounding the main islands of Japan. Thus, about 2,700 years ago, the inhabitants established the first of several trade networks in Ryukyu shells. It seems outsiders could not get enough of these rare shells and the various styles and species of shells seem to have marked different levels of power and social status.
Thus, our recent research has revealed that Cone shells and large Strombus shells were carried on sea routes extending 1,000 km to the north, to Northern Kyushu. Ornaments made from Ryukyu shells have been found on sites as far north as southern Hokkaido, northern Japan, around 500 BC. However, the bulk of these are found in sites in northern Kyushu, southern Japan, of the Yayoi period (800 BC to AD 240), in the burials of high chiefs. Parts of Cone shells were also used for decoration in ancient Korea, and bronze and stone copies of shells have been found in Japanese burial mounds of the Tomb period (AD 240 to 600).
Other kinds of shells were traded from the Ryukyus included the Green Turban shells (Turbo). This was used for shell inlay in some of the works of art found in the 8th century AD Shosoin Treasure House found in Nara in central Japan. It was also famously used for the decoration of the 12th century AD Konjikido mausoleum of the rulers of the Fujiwara Oshu Kingdom of Hiraizumi in northern Japan. The shell trade provided materials for creating the symbols of authority and belief in Japan and Korea. In a real sense, these symbols, traded from the Ryukyus, allowed for the perpetuation of social relations in some of the centres of ancient Japanese power.
As time marched on, the islands became increasingly connected to other parts of eastern Asia, culminating in a tiny but most impressive kingdom. From 1997 to 2005, a team from Urasoe City, Okinawa Island, has been excavating the first royal capital of Okinawa at Urasoe, belonging to the 13th and 14th centuries. We have revealed startling new evidence there, about the early stages of the formation of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which continued until the formation of modern Japan in the 1870s. The evidence comes from the royal burial chambers: two caves cut into a limestone cliff face below the castle.
The west cha
mber contains the remains of the 13th century King Eiso and his close relatives; while the east chamber contains those of the 17th century King Sho Nei and his close relatives. Our interest lies in the west cave since it sheds light on the early days of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Excavations have shown a sequence as follows: in the 13th century the remains of King Eiso and his family were placed in a lacquered wooden structure with gilt bronze fittings, placed under a wooden palanquin with clay tiled roof, all inside the cave, which was open to public view. The tiles are identical to those from a Korean palace on Chindo Island, built at the time of the Mongol occupation of Korea around 1273.
In a renovation in the first half of the 15th century, the area outside the caves was surrounded by a stone wall. This was to hide the chamber from view. The tiled structure and wooden coffin were retired from use and a portion of the bones from the wooden coffin was deposited in one of three new green tuff stone coffins, likely imported from Quanzhou, Fujian, judging from the stone material and the style of carving. (Quanzhou, also known as Zayton, lies on the southeast China coast and was visited by the 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta, and perhaps by Marco Polo in the 13th century who described it as the world’s second largest port.)
In total, three coffins contained the remains of King Eiso and his descendants, as well as rulers of the subsequent First Sho Dynasty of the 14th century. While the earlier open burial cave and wooden coffin were visible to passers by below the castle, the renovated sepulchre was hidden from public view. This was in keeping with new ideas that the king was the divine child of the sun and should not be seen.
Mitochondrial DNA analysis of the two individuals in one of the stone sarcophagi showed the presence of Haplogroup F, common in South China and Southeast Asia but rare in the general Okinawan population. Since mitochondrial
DNA is transmitted through females, this indicates that a wife of King Eiso must have been Chinese, and probably from South China. At the same time, a cranium from Sarcophagus 2 showed characteristics of typical mediaeval individuals from the main islands of Japan. Thus, the royal group in the 13th century was composed of people from various parts of the East China Sea region.
Before these excavations, many scholars believed Eiso was a local chief, possibly legendary. The excavations confirmed that the Ryukyu Kingdom was already developed in the 13th century and that Eiso was clearly a king. They also provide new information on movements in the East China Sea in the 13th and 14th centuries.
While precious shells flowed from the Ryukyus to the north some 2,000 years ago, in more recent times, Chinese and other ceramics were brought to the islands. These were exchanged for sulphur from the nearby volcano of Uojima, indigenous small horses, and other island goods including some products trans-shipped from Southeast Asia through the Ryukyus.
The production of some of the world’s most spectacular ceramics – namely the cobalt decorated Yuan Dynasty blue and white – began in the first half of the 14th century at the kilns of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province of eastern China. Its production was limited, and under strict imperial supervision. Consequently, pieces are rare in China in comparison to other wares.
Large pieces were exported, presumably as diplomatic gifts, and have been found in such famous sites as the Ardebil Shrine in Iran, the Topkapi Saray Palace of Istanbul, and from excavations of the Tughlaq Palace in Delhi.
Trade in blue and white
A recent tabulation of individual pieces of Yuan blue and white, by members of our Archaeology Team of Senshu University, showed that of a total of 458 pieces, 130 came from China, 40 from Japan, 179 from South and West Asia but that 109 came from the Ryukyus. Of these, 72% of the Ryukyu examples came from the castle at Shuri on Okinawa, the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, from the late 14th century to 1867.
Since Shuri was the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, it might be expected that precious ceramics should be concentrated there. However, in 1999, local archaeologists also found the remains of two complete Yuan jars near the remains of the ruler’s residence in the castle site of Gushikawa on Kume Island, some 100 km to the west of Okinawa. One of these, a fine example of a jar with animal shape handles and a decoration of dragon and tree peony flowers, is identical to an intact specimen in the Osaka City Oriental Ceramics Museum. Some 303 sherds from this site alone comprise at least two jars, one lid, and three bottles. Another cache of sherds in the same site yielded the broken remains of 12 separate vessels from the Early Ming Dynasty (late 14th to early 15th centuries).
Since the Ryukyu Islands are famous for transshipping or relay trade, many more pieces than those found in Ryukyu sites may have passed through Okinawa on their way to Southeast Asia, to sites such as Trowulan in Indonesia. The new finds from the Shuri Castle Site and at Kume indicate that we must revise the assumption, shared by scholars world wide, that the famous Yuan blue and white porcelains were made principally for export to South and West Asia for they also clearly went further East, too. In addition, these discoveries continue to underscore the rich and vibrant economy of the region and its impact on the wider world.