In our recent series of articles on the Overview of Paleolithic Japan, we began introducing a general overview of which regions the Japanese population arrived from and some of the conditions in the time of early Japanese civilization in the Old Stone Period. In this article, we go a little more in-depth into one of the ways archaeologists, mostly from Japan, identified the origins of the Japanese people. One of the methods is through the study of dentition. Dentition is basically about teeth, arrangement and development of teeth. Through the study of dentition, archaeologists trace the origins of the Japanese people. Through dentition, it is believed that the first settlers in the Japanese archipelago were from the Southeast Asian region, the Chinese region, the Korean peninsula, and the Russian region.

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What the Japanese Archipelago looked like in Paleolithic Period (town.sakawa.lg.jp)

The most famous of discoveries of the Paleolithic Period is what is known as The Minatogawa Man, an 18,000 year-old fossilized resident of Naha City in Okinawa. His height was about 155cm and he had large teeth. He is believed to resemble some other fossilized humans from history – The Liukiang man and Zhenpiyan man of South China, Lang-cuom and Phobinhgia man of North Indochina.

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Minatogawa Man (Wikipedia)

In the Overview of Paleolithic Japan article series, I mentioned the four regions the Japanese people have been believed to have arrived from. The first group is from South China, who migrated into the Japanese archipelago through Okinawa, previously known as Ryukyu. The second group was believed to have arrived from both South China and Southeast Asia. Based on dentition, they archaeologists identified that the migrants either came directly from South China through Okinawa or some went to Southeast Asia before going back up to the north to Japan. There is also speculation that people from South Asia, that arrived in Japan, were from Tibet.

How did dentition lead archaeologists to such theories and/or conclusions? Through dentition and the study of anthropology, two patterns have been found with regards to the population of East Asia – Sinodonty and Sundadonty. “Donty” generally refers to “teeth”. “Sino” refers to China and “Sunda” refers to Sundaland. Sundaland is the biogeographical region of Southeast Asia.

Based on these two patterns, scientists and archaeologists, trace fossilized human remains in Japan back to China and Southeast Asia.

Distribution of Sinodonts and Sundadonts in Aisa (Wikipedia)

Anthropologist Christy G. Turner identified the two patterns as being within the Mongoloid dental complex. She discovered the Sundadont patterns in the skeletal remains of Jomon people in Japan. The fossilized remains of the Paleolithic Period matched those skeletal remains of the Jomon Period. Sundadonts have been identified with Taiwanese aboriginals, Filipinos, Indonesians, Borneans and Malaysians.

For Sundadonts, their front teeth are smaller and do not have the “shovel” indentation on the back and the molars have a particular pattern. Apparently, the Ainu people of Japan share the Sudandont traits as well. Besides Okinawa, the existence of Sundadonts have also been discovered in Kyushu.

Report on the Osteological Assessment of the “Kennewick Man” Skeleton Joseph F. Powell and Jerome C. Rose, March 1, 1999

Turner also discovered the Sinodont pattern from the remains of the Japanese people of the Yayoi Period. The patterns bring them back to the Han Chinese. Sinodonts have been identified with Mongolians, Eastern Siberians, and Native Americans.

For Sinodonts, their upper first incisors and upper second incisors are shovel-shaped and are not aligned with the other teeth. The upper first premolar has one root and the lower first molar has three roots.

I won’t go any further on the whole dental patterns stuff as it will get more complex. You can read more about it if you are interested in anthropology. There are many other groupings  for the various types of study on teeth. It is actually quite fascinating, which I have no space in this article to explain.

What I wanted to share in this article is simply how archaeologists and scientists identify the origins of the Japanese people through the study of dental patterns. From the study, it seems that many of the migrants into Japan were from China and Southeast Asia, during the Stone Age of Japan.

Sources:

  1. Along the Paleolithic Path, Heritage of Japan
  2. Earliest People in Japan, Early Man in Japan, Facts and Details
  3. Origins of the Paleolithic people of Japan, Heritage of Japan