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Ancient Ryukyu

An Archaeological Study of Island Communities

Richard Pearson

Publication Year: 2013

Who are the people of the Ryukyu Islands? How could they survive and prosper on small, isolated islands? How did the independent Ryukyu Kingdom become a major player in East Asian medieval trade?

Ancient Ryukyu explores 30,000 years of human occupation in the Ryukyu Islands, from the earliest human presence in the region up to A.D. 1609 and the emergence of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It focuses on the unique geopolitical position of the islands, their environment, and the many human communities whose historical activities can be discerned. Drawing on the impressive work of dozens of local archaeologists who have brought the islands’ early history to life, Richard Pearson describes explorers and sojourners and colonists who arrived thousands of years ago, and their ancient trade links to Japan, Korea, and China. Through a case study focused on the medieval castles and palaces of the Ryukyu Kingdom, he demonstrates the vigorous trade taking place in East Asia before the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century A.D. He also shows how archaeologists have sought to reconstruct monuments on Okinawa Island that were obliterated in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Through analysis of work completed at about 120 sites described in dozens of rare Japanese government reports with limited circulation, Pearson is able to show that many modern features of the culture, politics, and economy of the Ryukyu Islands have very deep roots. The book concludes with a discussion of aspects of Ryukyu archaeology that are significant for world archaeology and the archaeology of islands. Ancient Ryukyu offers an up-to-date treatment of an unusually long span of human history in the Ryukyu Islands and will become the definitive work in English on the pre-modern era.

Richard Pearson is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

List of Figures

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pp. vii-ix

List of Tables

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

I am deeply indebted to countless individuals and institutions for assistance, support, and encouragement during fifty years of research in the Ryukyu Islands. It is impossible to express my gratitude to each and every one of them. A fortunate chance meeting in 1961 with George Kerr, historian of Okinawa, began my long association...

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1. Introduction: The Archaeology of Ryukyu Islanders

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pp. 1-16

This book is an archaeological study of the prehistory and early history of the Ryukyu Islands, which are the southwest extension of the Japanese island chain (Figure 1.1). Dealing with earliest times up to about AD 1600, I describe the life of the islanders from the point of view of their island communities, livelihood, and political...

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2. The Active Environment of the Ryukyus

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pp. 17-35

The active role of the environment in shaping human communities in the Ryukyus may seem obvious to Western readers. However, the historical typological approach of Japanese archaeology relegates the environment to a passive background role if it is mentioned at all. While there are exceptions, Holocene environmental...

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3. Pleistocene Inhabitants

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pp. 36-46

In this chapter I describe the earliest archaeological finds from the Ryukyus and discuss their significance for the study of early migrations, the relations of island populations to continental populations, and their place in the history of the Ryukyu islanders. I briefly introduce comparative studies with ancient and modern populations...

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4. Arriving and Settling: Island Hunter-Gatherer Colonization and Interaction

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pp. 47-81

In the previous chapter, the scant archaeological record of Late Pleistocene Homo sapiens confirmed their presence in the Ryukyus but provided little basis for the reconstruction of island communities. Fossil bones were found without artifacts or cultural context in sites dispersed through thousands of years. However, sites...

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5. Surviving in the Archipelago: Island Hunter-Gatherer Subsistence

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pp. 82-125

In this chapter I examine hunter-gatherer subsistence patterns throughout the Ryukyus, based on brief descriptions of sites from each subperiod and summaries of analyses of faunal and floral remains, site locations, archaeological features, and diet. As people colonized the Ryukyus in the Middle and Late Holocene...

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6. Exchange Networks and the Lure of Tropical Shells

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pp. 126-144

In the previous two chapters I have discussed the arrival of Holocene populations in the Ryukyus and the subsistence patterns of the Shellmound Period. In this chapter I discuss another aspect of Ryukyu prehistory, the development of exchange systems in the Amami and Okinawa Islands. This is a topic of general interest in island...

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7. The Gusuku Period (AD 1050 to 1429): A New Order

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pp. 145-193

Following a period of over eight thousand years during which small-scale societies lived by hunting and gathering, very rapid cultural and social change began in the eleventh century AD. In this chapter I first outline these changes, which are best known for the Okinawa Islands, and then describe briefly the important changes...

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8. Ryukyu Trade in the Gusuku and Early Ryukyu Kingdom Periods

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pp. 194-233

In this chapter I break the chronological sequence of Chapters 7 and 9 to focus on the development of trade and the growth of the Ryukyu maritime entrepôt. This chapter provides background for both Chapters 7 and 9 on particular features of regional exchange and trade, and the ways in which they created and supported various...

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9. The Early Ryukyu Kingdom (AD 1429 to 1609)

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pp. 234-272

This chapter is concerned with the archaeology of the Ryukyu Kingdom from the time of the defeat of its rivals in the early fifteenth century AD to its subjugation by Satsuma in AD 1609. It covers the archaeology of the capital, Shuri Gusuku, the port town of Naha, and the expansion of the kingdom to the surrounding islands...

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10. Discussion and Conclusions

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pp. 273-291

The main subject of this book has been the archaeological exploration of human communities living on the island arc of the Ryukyus including their migrations, adaptations, interaction, and islandscapes. So far, human fossils are dated to roughly 30,000 to 14,000 BC, although we know virtually nothing about the cultural adaptations...

Appendix 1: Building a Chronology of Trade Ceramics

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pp. 293-321

Appendix 2: The Successive Rulers of the Chuzan or Ryukyu Kingdom

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pp. 323-324

Glossary of Japanese and Chinese Characters

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pp. 325-334

References Cited

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pp. 335-388


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pp. 389-396

About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

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pp. 397-418

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865894
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824837129

Publication Year: 2013