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Reliving an Ancient Voyage

Hajime Okada

Jul. 28, 2016

A team of Japanese researchers is trying to determine how people first arrived in what is now Japan. To test their theory, they attempted to travel between 2 islands using a primitive vessel they think was used 30,000 years ago.

Humans could have taken 3 routes to reach the Japanese archipelago -- either arriving in Hokkaido, Tsushima or Okinawa. In recent years, ruins from 30,000 years ago have been discovered in and around the Okinawa islands.

It took a lot of preparation to make the grass boat seaworthy. The crew also needed to make their journey as authentic as possible, so they brought the same food their ancestors probably did, and put on ancient sun screen for protection against the strong rays.

Their voyage stretched 75 kilometers between the southern Japanese islands of Yonaguni and Iriomote. The anthropologists studied how people originally got to the Okinawa island chain from Taiwan.

No woodworking tools have ever been unearthed in the Okinawa ruins, so they came to believe the seashells they found at the sites were key. They think ancient voyagers could have used cattail grass in boat-making, something that's easily cut with seashells.

They dried and bundled the grass, eventually crafting it into 6-meter-long vessels. Their original launch date was pushed back because of bad weather but 5 days later, they finally set out.

The boats moved slower than researchers had expected, at about 2 kilometers per hour. And the paddlers had to fight strong currents to try to stay on course, eventually letting Mother Nature win.

They had to rely on modern technology for more than half of the journey. They cut loose for the last 10 kilometers and used human power. Anthropologists believe that ancient people might have made different boats from the one they used in order to cross the high seas.

The crew renewed their respect for their ancestors' courage right after hitting the shore.

"We know where the island is located and we have data on the wind and waves. Ancient people didn't have such things," said Ryusei Irikedamoto, a member of the boat's crew.

"We wanted to solve the mystery but I feel like it has deepened instead. There's no doubt that ancient people made the journey, so we will keep searching for the answers," said project leader Yousuke Kaifu.

NHK World's Hajime Okada joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: It must have been frightening to get into a boat made of nothing but grass.

Okada: Yes, it looked scary, but the boat was strong. It felt very stable, even when I got into the boat and stood up. I was surprised they could make such a good boat without any tools. It didn't seem like it was made out of grass. I brought some of it here. It's called "southern cattail" and it floats on water when it's dry. It grows on the island of Yonaguni.

Beppu: But unfortunately the journey didn’t go well this time because of the strong ocean current.

Okada:That's right, as you saw in the video. The current was so strong that the team couldn’t reach the island they were aiming for. We expected some ocean currents, but they were helpless against ones so strong. It must have also been hard for ancient people to cross the ocean. That's what we learned from this experiment.

Beppu: So what are the researchers going to do next?

Okada: The research group still plans to complete the journey from Taiwan to Yonaguni Island next year. But the leader of the project, Yousuke Kaifu, wants to analyze the first attempt to find out what went wrong. He wants to use that information to draw up a new plan.

The experiment didn't go as planned, but we know that humans somehow crossed the ocean around 30,000 years ago. And they did it without the tools we have today. Next time, the researchers want to try all possible techniques, such as using sails.