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  • Ancient Ryūkyū: An Archaeological Study of Island Communities by Richard Pearson
  • Boyd Dixon and Alexandra Garrigue
Ancient Ryūkyū: An Archaeological Study of Island Communities. Richard Pearson. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013. 396pp, 42 illustrations in black and white, 9 appendixes, 1 color frontispiece. ISBN 978-0-824-83712-9. Cloth US$ 55.

Richard Pearson’s Ancient Ryūkyū: An Archaeological Study of Island Communities examines the human occupation of the Ryūkyū archipelago and its relations with its neighbors, from its earliest peopling in the Pleistocene era, circa 32,000 years before present (b.p.), to the subjugation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom by a Japanese feudal clan in 1609. The author argues that during the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods, the diverse archipelago constituting the Ryūkyū was likely colonized more than once by small groups of hunter-gatherers coming from the north, south, or west. A distinct maritime-focused culture developed over the lengthy Shell-mound period. The exchanges initiated during this period continued in new forms through the following Gusuku period, when agriculture was adopted and international trade with other kingdoms emerged. This book vastly updates Pearson’s previous volume, Archae ology of the Ryūkyū Islands (University of Hawai‘i Press, 1969), bringing together four decades of recent archaeological literature, much of it written by Japanese scholars, to document the growing material record of human occupation in the archipelago over time.

After introducing the reader to the regional archaeology and palaeogeography of the Ryūkyū Islands (chapters 1 and 2), the author discusses Pleistocene peopling in chapter 3. Correlations are made between sites and processes of migration, colonization, and assimilation. During the regression of the late and last glacial maxima between 32,000 and 10,000 b.p., it seems that few Homo sapiens dared to cross the narrow water gaps that probably remained between the continent and the Ryūkyū Islands in the Tokara Strait—Kerama Gap and Yonaguni Trench. They might have followed deer, the fossilized bones of which are frequently found in geological contexts sometimes in association with human remains. The author acknowledges the absence of archaeological sites with in situ artifacts for this period. After an archaeological void of at least four millennia during which the human population of the Ryūkyū might have become extinct, it was not until roughly 7000 b.p. that coastal reefs and upland forests stabilized enough to again attract visitors from neighboring islands. Modern genetic evidence and palaeobiological studies of skeletal remains show physical discontinuities between late Pleistocene and later populations. They do not expose any close affinity between Ainu (northern Japanese) and Ryūkyū populations, which should have been the case if they both had been direct descendents of Jōmon peoples, as widespread theories suggest.

Chapters 4 through 6 span the long Shell-mound period between 7000 and 1100 b.p. [End Page 116] when most Ryūkyū islands were inhabited, from Tanegashima in the north to the Sakishima Islands in the south. During this period, hunter-gatherer colonization from Kyūshū and subsequent interaction between north-central Ryūkyū and southern Japan or farther became undeniable. As the period name suggests, early colonists appear to have focused on coastal zones near accessible maritime resources. Differing ceramic sequences between island clusters suggest small groups arrived in sporadic intervals and adapted to local conditions independently, rather than there having been a coordinated or continuous migration from the north. The book proposes a broad description of each known ceramic type. The main vessel forms are deep jars for cooking and globular jars for storage. Vessels were first plain, then fingernail impressions appeared, followed by a large variety of decorative patterns. Both vessels imported from Kyūshū and those locally produced have been found, suggesting constant interaction and probably sporadic migration over time.

The author argues that colonization in northern and central Ryūkyū probably constituted several phases, including early exploration, sojourn, and colonization. In this process, the Amami Islands, located between Kyūshū and Okinawa Island, probably played a key role. By 3500 b.p., the Ryūkyū inhabitants started to develop a strong local identity, but conserved links with southern...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-8283
Print ISSN
0066-8435
Pages
pp. 116-120
Launched on MUSE
2015-05-04
Open Access
No
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