Researchers are aiming to recreate an ancient sea voyage. Image: Yosuke Kaifu

Japanese Researchers Want to Row to Taiwan on Rafts to Solve an Ancient Mystery

In the age of high-speed transport, Japanese researchers are turning to some vintage methods to find the origins of the Japanese people.

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Feb 17 2016, 6:10pm

Researchers are aiming to recreate an ancient sea voyage. Image: Yosuke Kaifu

In the age of high-tech bullet trains and speedy air travel, it seems a crazy idea: A team of Japanese researchers are attempting to retrace an ancient sea voyage from Taiwan to Japan on grass or bamboo boats.

They're trying to solve a longstanding migration mystery: What transportation methods did early settlers use to cross the sea from Taiwan into Japan roughly 38,000 years ago?

The team has turned to crowdfunding to raise 20,000,000 yen ($175,000) to try and answer some questions at the center of their niche research project.

"We know that human settlers crossed over from Taiwan to Japan 38,000 years ago, but how exactly they crossed the sea has always remained a mystery," Yosuke Kaifu, project mastermind and an anthropologist at the National Science Museum in Tokyo, told me over the phone.

The rowers will sail 75 km on their maiden voyage—funds permitting. Image: Yosuke Kaifu

According to Kaifu—whose research focuses on how modern humans came to Asia—at the time Homo sapiens were building up new cultures, ways of life, languages, and thought systems, the differences in their lifestyles were shaped to some degree by the geographies they inhabited. While early humans in Europe, for instance, left traces of their creative prowess in cave paintings in Lascaux in southwestern France, there is, said Kaifu, no evidence of this manifestation of creativity in Japan.

"The Cro-Magnon (forerunners of modern man) in Europe didn't have to sail anywhere, but people had to cross the sea in order to reach Japan," said Kaifu. "I think that their creative processes manifest in the solutions that they invented to cross the sea."

Since last year, Kaifu and a team of 19 other anthropologists and marine explorers have been constructing some prototype versions of the boats that they will use to sail from Iriomote-jima (the second largest island in Okinawa Prefecture) to Yonaniguni-jima (the westernmost inhabited island in Japan). If they reach their crowdfund goal, the trip sea voyage from Iriomote to Yonaniguni will launch in July 2017. The journey of 75 km will take around 25 hours. Though the rowing crew will eventually aim to sail from Taiwan to Japan, they won't be attempting that voyage in 2017 as it requires more training.

As there are no fossilised boat remains to be found, the researchers have deduced how these boats would have looked like through an analysis of the stone tools dating from the era.

The research team have started prototyping their transportation options. Image: Yosuke Kaifu

"When we look at the tools from our excavations that our ancestors used, we are able to decide whether they could or couldn't make things like canoes," explained Kaifu. "For instance, we've found no evidence of axes from that period, so we decided that they probably couldn't carve a log to make a canoe."

Without adequate tools, the range of sailing methods shrink, said Kaifu. For the moment, the group have settled on making grass boats. So far, they've made these boats in small, medium, and large sizes. The small size seats one person, and the largest—which measures up to six meters—seats four. The team will also be testing out bamboo rafts, but these, said Kaifu, don't move through the water at very high speeds.

The research team stand with one of their first prototype vessels. Image: Yosuke Kaifu

"As it will take 25 hours of non-stop rowing, there will be many challenges," said Kaifu. "The rowers will have to make sure they are on track, and not going on the wrong way. They will also have to contend with the "kuroshio" (black current)—a very strong current that flows between Taiwan and Japan.

The project is currently 22 percent funded, and the group has until April 12, 2016 to reach their goal. At present, it's hard to tell whether such a specific research topic will win over the masses. Kaifu, however, remained adamant about the project's value.

"At the moment, all we know is that it was really difficult for early settlers coming from Taiwan to Japan to travel here," said Kaifu. "What we want to do is make and test different boats so that we can understand how difficult it really was."

Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.