Japanese language traced back to farmers in China’s northeast: int’l research group

This 2008 photo provided by Mark Hudson shows excavations in progress at the Nagabaka site on Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture.


TOKYO — The origin of the Japanese language can be traced back to farmers who lived near the West Liao River in northeast China about 9,000 years ago, announced an international team of researchers.


The team, led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History based in Germany, consists of linguists, archaeologists, and anthropologists specializing in genetics from Japan, China, South Korea, Russia, the United States and other countries. The findings were published in the British scientific journal Nature on Nov. 10 (Nov. 11 JST).


The origin and spread of Transeurasian languages, including Japanese (as well as the Ryukyuan language), Korean, Mongolic, Tungusic and Turkish, is a debated topic in prehistoric studies on Asia. The recent study has garnered attention as a groundbreaking new theory that elucidates these origins and poses the hypothesis that the dispersal of these languages was driven by agriculture.


The team examined the residential areas and dispersal routes, as well as their time periods, of the common ancestors of Transeurasian language speakers. Through the combination of extensive references in each academic field, including the vocabulary of 98 languages associated with farming, DNA analysis of ancient human bones, and an archaeological database, the analysis was conducted with a high-level of accuracy and credibility.


The study found that the common ancestors of the languages were broomcorn and foxtail millet farmers who lived about 9,000 years ago in a region near the West Liao River, which flows north of Shenyang in northeastern China, during the early period of Japan’s prehistoric Jomon era. Afterwards, over a period of several thousand years, the farmers moved northward and eastward to the Amur region and an area in Russia’s far east facing the sea, as well as southward to China’s Liaodong Peninsula and the Korean Peninsula, among other surrounding areas.


Along with the spread of agriculture, language was also disseminated. Rice and wheat were added to the variety of agricultural crops on the Korean Peninsula before they came to Japan. The research concluded that the farmers arrived at the Japanese archipelago in the northern part of the Kyushu region in the southwest about 3,000 years ago, as speakers of the Japanese-Ryukyuan languages, while bringing along wet-rice agriculture.

Martine Robbeets, a professor belonging to the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who served as the research team’s leader, is seen in this image provided by the institute.


Mark Hudson, an archaeologist with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who is a member of the research team, said that a new language that entered the Japanese archipelago replaced the language of the original inhabitants of the Jomon period, while the old language remained isolated, becoming what is now the Ainu language.


Meanwhile, Okinawa in southern Japan appears to have unique linguistic origins that differ from those of the main island. Based on an analysis of human bones that were excavated from the Nagabaka site on Okinawa’s Miyako Island, it can apparently be estimated that many Japanese people from the Kyushu area moved to Okinawa bringing along farming and the Ryukyuan language during the Gusuku period that began in around the 11th century. The Ryukyuan language is believed to have replaced the previous language during this time.


The study has also yielded the discovery of human bones with DNA that matches that of the Jomon people, on the Korean Peninsula, and will likely influence studies regarding the history of the establishment of the culture of the Japanese archipelago, from various standpoints.


Hiroto Takamiya, professor of prehistoric anthropology at Kagoshima University, who is a co-author of the published study and is familiar with the spread of agriculture, commented, “The recent study has indicated that farming spread from China’s northeast region to various Eurasian areas, and that the people who spoke the language which became Japanese entered Kyushu, while bringing along agriculture. The research is the work of international members of interdisciplinary academia, and has brought forth results that were consistent among all three disciplines of language, archaeology and genetics. I think that we’ve obtained considerably reliable data.”


Martine Robbeets, a linguistic professor belonging to the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who served as the research group’s leader, commented, “Accepting that the roots of one’s language — and to an extent one’s culture — lie beyond present national boundaries can require a kind of reorientation of identity, and this is not always an easy step for people to take.”


“But the science of human history shows us that the history of all languages, cultures, and peoples is one of extended interaction and mixture,” she said, and presented the contemporary significance of the research in a wider context.


(Japanese original by Kazushi Ito, Cultural News Department)