DNA sheds light on mysterious Okhotsk people
BY NOBUYUKI WATANABE, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
Scholars using DNA testing hope to unravel age-old mysteries
surrounding the Okhotsk people, who suddenly disappeared around the
10th century in northern parts of Hokkaido.
And their research could shatter theories on the evolution of the
indigenous Ainu people.
The Okhotsk culture is believed to have originated on Sakhalin and
spread south to northern Hokkaido around the fifth century, when Japan
was in the kofun period of tumulus mounds.
The culture eventually spread to eastern Hokkaido and reached the
Chishima archipelago, before disappearing in the 10th century.
Researchers in such various fields as archaeology, history and
ethnology have tried to figure out just who the Okhotsk people were.
Some scholars believe the Okhotsk people were the northern race
referred to as Ashihase in the ancient chronicle Nihon Shoki, compiled
in the eighth century.
Studies have also led researchers to small ethnic groups scattered
around Sakhalin, Siberia and the islands in the northern parts beyond
Still, no definitive answer has been found.
However, Ryuichi Masuda, an associate professor of molecular
phylogenetics at Hokkaido University, and Takehiro Sato, a graduate
student, have shed more light on the Okhotsk people.
They extracted DNA samples from 37 human remains that were discovered
from ruins of the Okhotsk culture and kept at Hokkaido University
Museum. Analyses of the characteristics of the mitochondrial DNA led
Masuda and Sato to conclude that the Okhotsk people are closest to the
Nivkhis, who now live in northern Sakhalin and near the mouth of the
Amur river in Siberia.
The two also concluded that the Okhotsk people shared a common
ancestor with the Ulchis, who live downstream of the Amur river.
The Nivkhis and Ulchis are small ethnic groups with only a few
thousand survivors remaining.
Little is known about the Okhotsk people, who lived along the coast
and caught fish and whales while raising dogs and pigs.
But studies of the Okhotsk could also help scholars trace the
evolution of the Ainu.
Rice cultivation did not spread in Hokkaido even during the Yayoi
Pottery Culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 300). But a unique culture developed,
described as a procession beginning with a Jomon Pottery Culture,
followed by a Later Jomon Pottery Culture and a Satsumon Pottery
Although the Ainu are believed to have inherited aspects of Hokkaido
culture, they also have cultural factors not found in the Jomon
strain, for example their ceremonies involving bears.
Moreover, scholars have said that similar habits with bears were found
in the Okhotsk culture.
Masuda and his associates have confirmed that some Okhotsk people had
genetic types similar to those of the Ainu, but these types were not
found among the Jomon strain.
Tetsuya Amano, an archaeology professor at Hokkaido University,
believes the analytic results opened new doors.
"It has now become clear that the Ainu are not simply the direct
descendants of the Jomon people, but emerged after going through a
very complicated process," Amano said.
So if the closest people to the Okhotsk were the Nivkhis, what kind of
people are they?
According to Hidetoshi Shiraishi, an associate professor of
linguistics at Sapporo Gakuin University, the Nivkhi language is
independent in that it is not structurally related to other languages
in the vicinity. The origins of the Nivkhi people are also unclear.
While the Nivkhis are believed to have navigated sail boats and led a
life centered on fishing, their unique culture has been encroached
upon in recent years with gradual integration into Russian culture.
"There has been a number of waves of immigrants to Japan, such as the
arrival of the Yayoi people, but the southern advance by the Okhotsk
people is likely the most recent of those waves," said Naruya Saito, a
professor of population genetics at the National Institute of
However, scholars still do not know what brought those Okhotsk people
Hiroshi Ushiro, a curator specializing in archaeology at the
Historical Museum of Hokkaido, said climate change, or more
specifically global warming, may have enabled the Okhotsk people to
The latter part of the kofun period when the Okhotsk culture reached
northern Hokkaido was relatively warm. Sea levels were about 1 meter
higher than they are now.
In the early part of the Heian Period (794-1185), when the culture
spread across Hokkaido, the average annual temperatures were about 2
to 3 degrees higher than they are today.
At that time, on the opposite side of the Eurasia continent, another
northern people, the vikings, increased their population due to the
warmer weather. The vikings ventured out to sea, conquered various
lands in Europe and spread their reach to as far away as Greenland.
A similar tale of cultural expansion may have taken place around the
same time in the northern parts of the Japanese archipelago.(IHT/
Asahi: February 24,2009)