Update: Explorers successfully voyage to Japan in primitive boat in bid to unlock an ancient mystery

A team of five paddlers will attempt to cross 200 kilometers of open ocean in a primitive log boat.

Update, 10 July, 6:20 a.m.: A team of adventurers succeeded in paddling a primitive dug-out canoe across more than 200 kilometers of ocean to demonstrate how ancient humans may have reached the Ryukyu Islands scattered between Taiwan and Japan. “It was an unexpected big success,” says archeologist Yousuke Kaifu of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. The five-person crew set out from Taiwan in the early afternoon on 7 July. They lost their way the second night when clouds obscured the stars they used to navigate. Rather than paddle in an uncertain direction, they decided to rest. As they slept, ocean currents carried them toward their target.  “It was really lucky,” Kaifu says. They completed the trip just before noon on 9 July, after about 45 hours at sea. Drifting off course added 30 to 40 kilometers to the trip, Kaifu estimates. Whether paleolithic people really paddled across the ocean “is difficult to prove in a scientific way,” Kaifu says. But the experiment gives him the feeling that “that’s the way our ancestors did it,” he says.  

Here is our previous story from 2 July:

In the next week or so, five adventurers will attempt to paddle a primitive hand-hewn canoe across 200 kilometers of ocean in hopes of revealing how humans originally populated East China Sea islands. The 40-hour trip, from Taiwan to Yonaguni, the westernmost of Japan’s Okinawa Islands, is the culmination of a 6-year effort to experimentally determine what kinds of craft Paleolithic peoples may have built and used, and how they navigated over long ocean voyages.

Archeological sites show humans first arrived in Japan more than 30,000 years ago. They likely reached the main islands from northeast Asia via a land bridge from Siberia and by crossing the straits in watercraft from the Korean Peninsula.

The voyagers will cross from Taiwan to Yonaguni in Japan, (red arrow) allowing a strong current to pull them northward as they paddle eastward.

But how Paleolithic humans settled the Ryukyus, the present-day Okinawa Islands that stretch 1200 kilometers from Taiwan to Japan’s Kyushu Island, “is really a big mystery,” says Yousuke Kaifu, an archaeologist at Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo who dreamed up the expedition. The “very difficult” sea voyages were undoubtedly made in boats built of materials that have not survived, he says. And sailing boats had not yet appeared, So Kaifu’s team has been building and testing watercraft that prehistoric seafarers might have paddled.

Yonaguni can be seen from Taroko Mountain in northeastern Taiwan. So ancient peoples presumably knew of the island, even though it can’t be seen from shore, Kaifu says. To show the Taiwan-to-Yonaguni crossing could have been done, Kaifu starting to plan the “holistic reenactment” voyage in 2013. The team first built boats made of bundled bulrushes, similar in design to reed boats used by prehistoric peoples around the world; and then bamboo rafts, relying on traditional techniques used by Taiwan’s Amis tribe. Short-distance trial runs showed these crafts were slow and that currents pulled them off-course. The team concluded they were not suitable for long-distance voyages.

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