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Ice Age Swashbucklers? Volume 58 Number 5, September/October 2005
by Tom Koppel
In the Wake of the Jomon

Over two summers, science writer and veteran expedition buff Jon Turk sailed and kayaked the Siberian coast from Japan to the Bering Sea. His exciting account provides wonderful glimpses of wildlife and grim post-Soviet conditions on those glaciated tundra shores. If only he had stopped there. With In the Wake of the Jomon (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005; $24.95), Turk claims to re-enact part of a late Ice Age migration to America by Japan's Jomon, who he believes were ancestral to early inhabitants of the Northwest such as Kennewick Man. The trip yields no new insight into this alleged odyssey. Turk doesn't build a boat from materials found on the tundra shore, wear natural Arctic clothes, or live on locally available foods. Instead, he uses high-tech gear provided by frequently mentioned sponsors.

The Jomon were Stone Age hunter-gatherers and mariners. In the last Ice Age, the sea level was so low that most of the shoreline from Japan to Washington State could have been traversed by people living off maritime resources, making occasional offshore hops to get around glaciers. It would have taken years, even many generations, but it could have been done.

However, Turk, author of Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat, and Dogsled (HarperCollins, 1998), is impatient with such incrementalism. In his swashbuckling sensibility, Jomon "eccentrics" pursuing "mysterious, quixotic dreams" made a "mad dash" across the Pacific in dugout canoes. "The odds greatly favored a few people jumping in a boat and voyaging over the horizon," he writes. Yet, as geologists have shown, trees didn't recolonize the newly ice-free North Pacific rim until about 13,500 years ago. So where would the wood for dugouts have come from? Gradually migrating people likely built skin boats, or possibly lashed rafts from driftwood. They would have lived and hunted on the shore, staying put each winter, not making the voyage in a single season, as Turk thinks likely.

He even imagines the Jomon paddling hundreds of icy miles straight across from Kamchatka to the Aleutians. But the Jomon only traveled about 20 miles offshore from Japan's main island, to obtain obsidian. And New Zealand archaeologist Geoffrey Irwin has shown that tropical Pacific mariners did not get much beyond 100 miles until the Polynesians invented large outrigger sailing canoes.

Nor could a few wild adventurers in a canoe--the "marginally insane" dreamers of which Turk proudly sees himself as a spiritual descendant--successfully establish a population in America. Population biology models show that it would probably have taken at least five men and five women of ideal childbearing age to populate a new island or continent, and more if some perished en route.

In the end, after two summers of travel, even though he didn't have to hunt or fish as the Jomon would have, Turk made it only halfway.

Tom Koppel is the author of Lost World: How New Science Is Tracing America's Ice Age Mariners.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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