FEATURE: Team prepares for final ocean voyage

ISLAND HOPPING::The happiest moment for Yousuke Kaifu during the project was seeing Japan’s Yonaguni Island from Hualien’s Taroko, the anthropologist said

By Lin Tsuei-yi and Sherry Hsiao  /  Staff reporter in Tokyo, with staff writer

Tue, Sep 04, 2018 - Page 4

A research team led by Japanese anthropologist Yousuke Kaifu is next summer to embark on a sea voyage from Taitung City to Yonaguni Island, Japan, a route he believes was used by early humans to migrate to Japan.

Kaifu, head of the Division of Human Evolution at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, studies the 2-million-year history of human populations in Asia through fossil analysis.

While some European researchers argue that early humans migrated to Japan via Eurasia, citing fossils and ancient sites found on the Ryukyu Islands dating back 30,000 years to the Paleolithic Age, Kaifu said he has reservations about the theory.

“The northern part of the Japanese archipelago could have been connected to the Eurasian continent tens of thousands of years ago, but how would early humans have reached the Ryukyu Islands?” Kaifu asked.

He said he believes that the ancestors of modern Japanese arrived on the archipelago during the Paleolithic via three routes: from the Korean Peninsula to Kyushu via Tsushima Island about 38,000 years ago; from Eurasia to Hokkaido via Sakhalin, Russia, about 25,000 years ago; and from Taiwan to Okinawa about 35,000 years ago.

Kaifu said he believes the migration from Taiwan to the Ryukyu Islands was intentional and was done by boats.

His project, titled “Navigating 30,000 Years Ago: Crossing the Kuroshio Current,” was launched in 2016 to test his hypothesis.

The project is a collaboration between Taitung City’s National Museum of Prehistory and the Japanese museum, and involves nearly 100 anthropologists, paleoceanographers, botanists, archeologists, marine explorers and volunteers from Taiwan and Japan.

The research team has over the past two years twice made the 200km voyage from Taitung to Yonaguni on reed and bamboo rafts.

It plans to make the voyage for a final time next summer using a wooden raft, which is currently being built.

While the team ran into many unforeseen problems during the two voyages, these provided them with valuable lessons, Kaifu said.

For example, although reed and bamboo rafts are stable, they are slow; and while wooden rafts offer greater speeds, they are also more likely to capsize, he said.

The Kuroshio Current also turned out to be stronger than they expected, he said, adding that typhoons, thunderstorms and other adverse weather conditions have also affected the voyages.

One of the happiest moments for him during the project was seeing Yonaguni from Hualien County’s Taroko (太魯閣) at an altitude of about 1,000m, because academics had previously questioned the possibility of early human migration from Taiwan to Yonaguni, saying Yonaguni could not be seen from Taiwan proper, Kaifu said.

Kaifu has launched an online crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the Japanese portion of the project, a first for a Japanese national museum.

However, unlike the Japanese museum, the National Museum of Prehistory is not allowed to launch fundraising efforts, but can accept donations.

Therefore, the museum relies on donations besides requesting funds from the Ministry of Culture and using a part of its annual budget, museum vice director Lin Chih-hsing (林志興) said.

Shinkong Securities, which last year contributed NT$250,000 (US$8,140 at the current exchange rate), is the project’s only corporate sponsor in Taiwan, Lin said, adding that the museum still needs NT$5 million for the final part of the project.

Taiwan has a diverse marine culture, but the nation has paid scant attention to it until now, he said.

Lin said he hopes the project will raise public awareness about Taiwan’s value and its relationship with the ocean.

Research on Austronesian peoples in Taiwan has been increasing over the past two decades, local media have reported.

Many academics agree that Austronesian peoples spread across the South Pacific islands by migrating southward from Taiwan about 5,000 years ago, during the Neolithic, the reports said.

The northward migration to Japan and the southward migration about 25,000 years later mean that Taiwan has been involved in the history of human migrations for at least 30,000 years, Lin said.

The project serves multiple purposes, he added.

Apart from allowing people to better understand prehistoric culture, he hopes that the experiment will encourage further research into the topic, he said.

He hopes the project will allow people to appreciate the value of humans and the world, Lin added.