- Ancient Ryukyu: An Archaeological Study of Island Communities by Richard Pearson
Archaeology is a discipline of pieces. Finding material traces of past communities involves time-consuming exploration, travel, and fieldwork, but an archaeologist’s real challenge is using materials to describe the life and activities of ancient people. Many archaeologists also use their discoveries as a concrete record of the cultural connections and distribution of the communities that left them behind. That research is popular because it presents information in sequential series that can be built into classroom lectures and regional syntheses. Some archaeologists try to give their discoveries broad significance by using them to address general processes of the human past. This work makes even obscure corners of the world broadly relevant. The challenge at each of these levels is using archaeological evidence as a basis for interpretations.
Ancient Ryukyu: An Archaeological Study of Island Communities reflects Richard Pearson’s career-long commitment to the archaeology of the Ryukyus. It is a capstone sort of work in which a dedicated and well-connected expert sets out to synthesize what archaeology has to offer about essentially all of the human history of the small to tiny islands that lie to the south of Japan. This is indeed a big task because people have occupied at least parts of the Ryukyu chain for something like 20,000 years. The islands themselves present a large but fragmented geography that makes the archaeological record disjointed and dispersed. Lying on the edge of the Pacific and geographically between Japan, China, and the islands of Southeast Asia, the Ryukyus have been at least potentially exposed to cultural inputs from a huge and complex zone.
Ancient Ryukyu opens with an introductory chapter that serves as an abstract for the volume as a whole. It discusses Ryukyuan geography, and with text and chronological charts it also provides a chronological framework for both the full human occupation of the Ryukyus and the Shellmound period (7000 BC to 850 AD). Thumbnail overviews of each chapter prepare readers for the unavoidably detailed chronological and geographic information in subsequent chapters. The most interesting part of the introduction, however, may be the author’s presentation of his research framework. Pearson approaches the human past as “historical ecology.” That means he focuses on evidence that reflects how people adapted to their immediate environments. He views these as “choices” that reflect political and social agency. [End Page 485] Archaeologists interested in the rigor and scientific power of evolutionary ecology are not his audience. Pearson compares the Ryukyus with other island groups and island ecologies that archaeologists are investigating. He specifically links work in the Ryukyus with research being done in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.
Treatment of the opening and early phases of human occupation in the Ryukyus is presented in four separate but thematically linked chapters. Explicitly these treat the geography, Pleistocene inhabitants, settling, and potential for hunting and gathering survival, but they all include rich mixtures of archaeological description, ecological information, and interpretive discussion. Summarizing the early portion of the Ryukyuan archaeological record is a challenge because the record of early sites is thin. The island chain is diverse from north to south and presents dissimilar information in different areas. Over the past 20,000 years, the soils, reefs, climates, and size of the Ryukyuan environments have all been dynamic, often in very dramatic terms due to tsunami and volcanism. All this means that when archaeologists discover early sites, assessing the context within which recovered artifacts were made and used is a challenge. Pearson does a laudable job of presenting evidence amassed by himself and Japanese researchers. His treatments deal concretely with archaeological data, but his focus is on how the hunter-gatherer population could survive in the Ryukyus. His conclusion is that before agriculture was available, survival on the small islands was difficult so that occupation of the Ryukyus appears to have been small, spotty, and discontinuous. This is an important point, if only because it highlights the successful affluence of the J...