Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Ancient Ryukyu

Ancient Ryukyu: An Archaeological Study of Island Communities

Richard Pearson
Copyright Date: 2013
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Ancient Ryukyu
    Book Description:

    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 Ryukyuexplores 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 Ryukyuoffers 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 Pearsonis professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6589-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. VII-X)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. XI-XII)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XIII-XIV)
  6. Chapter 1 Introduction: The Archaeology of Ryukyu Islanders
    (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 organization. I emphasize the environment of the Ryukyus, its development, and its interrelationship with local history.

    In brief, the first archaeological record of human habitation occurred at the end of the Pleistocene, some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, when sea level was about 140...

  7. Chapter 2 The Active Environment of the Ryukyus
    (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 change is often ignored in site reports and surveys. There is much to be done to fully integrate environmental data into the archaeological discourse of the Ryukyus; this chapter is a preliminary effort.

    The Ryukyu Islands form a chain 1,100 km long. In east-west cross-section, from the Pacific Ocean, they are composed of...

  8. Chapter 3 Pleistocene Inhabitants
    (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 that have brought up many questions. The locations of major sites discussed in this chapter and in Chapters 4 to 6 are shown in Figure 3.1.

    The earliest evidence of human groups in the Ryukyu region consists of late Pleistocene fossils, the most extensive assemblage found in all of Japan...

  9. Chapter 4 Arriving and Settling: Island Hunter-Gatherer Colonization and Interaction
    (pp. 47-81)

    In the previous chapter, the scant archaeological record of Late PleistoceneHomo sapiensconfirmed 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 left by groups living in the Shellmound Period of the Central and Northern Ryukyus and the Shimotabaru and Non-Ceramic Periods of the Southern Ryukyus (see Figures 1.2, 1.3) are relatively rich and permit some social interpretations. In this chapter, I summarize the cultural chronology for the two regions and describe some key characteristics...

  10. Chapter 5 Surviving in the Archipelago: Island Hunter-Gatherer Subsistence
    (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, their subsistence patterns adapted to local conditions. These subsistence changes are the subject of research in a variety of fields. How did islanders adapt to the developing coral reefs that grew to surround the islands? Did they hunt wild boar, or transport boar or pigs from the Japanese main islands or the Asian mainland?...

  11. Chapter 6 Exchange Networks and the Lure of Tropical Shells
    (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 archaeology. The exchange systems discussed here occurred from about 2,600 years ago to as late as 700 years ago.

    In the first millennium bc islanders retained their subsistence pattern of hunting and gathering, while huge changes occurred in Kyushu and the other main islands of Japan....

  12. Chapter 7 The Gusuku Period (ad 1050 to 1429): A New Order
    (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 that took place on other islands, such as the development of the Gusuku Site Group of Kikaigashima and the grayware kiln sites of Kamuiyaki on Tokunoshima. (Kamuiyaki is a locality where grayware termed kamuiyaki was produced.) In the final section I present two case studies of the famous...

  13. Chapter 8 Ryukyu Trade in the Gusuku and Early Ryukyu Kingdom Periods
    (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 communities in the rise of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Trade was a key factor for the island political economy of the Ryukyus. To better understand the context of trade, I cover major milestones in the history of relations between the Ryukyus, Japan, Korea, and China....

  14. Chapter 9 The Early Ryukyu Kingdom (ad 1429 to 1609)
    (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 of the Ryukyus.

    In this period the newly unified Ryukyu Kingdom, consisting of Chūzan and its defeated rivals of Sanhoku and Sannan, reached its full development. It interacted on several levels with communities of all types, from royal courts to small traders...

  15. Chapter 10 Discussion and Conclusions
    (pp. 273-292)

    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, population dynamics, or subsistence practices of the Pleistocene inhabitants of the islands. As island hunter-gatherers, Ryukyuans survived for thousands of years in small communities, dying out on more than one occasion. Repeated migration from surrounding areas was significant for their survival. It is possible that they experimented with growing root...

  16. Appendix 1: Building a Chronology of Trade Ceramics
    (pp. 293-322)
  17. Appendix 2: The Successive Rulers of the Chūzan or Ryukyu Kingdom
    (pp. 323-324)
  18. Glossary Japanese and Chinese Characters for Okinawan and Coastal Chinese Site Names, Japanese Authors’ Names, and Ceramic and Coin Names
    (pp. 325-334)
  19. References Cited
    (pp. 335-388)
  20. Index
    (pp. 389-396)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 397-403)