We may have yet another story of long-distance prehistoric contact.  A new paper in PLOS genetics  suggests that people from the Jomon culture in Japan  may have reached northwestern  South America.  They found an unusual Y-chromosome lineage in Ecuador that is fairly common in Korea and Japan (especially the Ainu) but is essentially nonexistent in the rest of the Americas.   The idea is not new:  the first pottery in the Americas apparently originated in that area,  pottery that looks very similar to that made by the Jomon culture.  Moreover, you find HTLV-I in both areas, which is probably a hint.

Betty Meggers and Clifford Evans, who excavated the Valdivia culture, came up with this hypothesis back in 1969. Apparently, it seemed plausible to other archaeologists, except for two objections, one fairly reasonable and the other friggin’ insane.  The reasonable objection was simple: it’s  a damn long way from Japan to Ecuador.  Fair enough. The second, demented objection was that diffusionist explanations of technological  advances implicitly diss the locals – and since we’re talking Native Americans, we can’t have that!

I had missed it,  possibly because I didn’t have my crazy hat on, but the same issue was in the background of the reaction to that recent paper that found evidence of gene flow from India to Australia.  Around that time, you see the dingo, new kinds of stone tools and weapons, and new  food processing techniques.  I guess you’re insulting the Aborigines if you don’t think they invented the dog  – invented, not domesticated, since there weren’t any canids in Australia, hardly any placental mammals.

For the Americas, the [current] pre-Columbian picture is this, more or less: the original Amerind migration, followed by the Na-Dene, then Eskimo-Aleuts,  spiced with Jomon in Ecuador, a visit or two to the west coast of South America by Polynesians (who picked up the  sweet potato), and finally Norskis in Vinland.

For Australia,  gene & meme flow from India about five thousand years ago – probably a shipwreck.

Another shipwreck may have brought Indonesians to an uninhabited Madagascar.

The real question is why there weren’t more visitations, and why they didn’t seem to make much difference.  There were probably quite a few. We know of many cases in recent historical times in which Japanese fishing vessels with surviving crew were cast on the western shores of the Americas.  They landed in Acapulco in 1617, Alaska in 1805,  just off Santa Barbara in 1815, the Oregon coast in 1820,  Queen Charlotte’s island in in 1831, Mexico in 1845. They landed in Oahu in 1832, and local Polynesians  were aware of several others before Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778.

The question is why this trans-Pacific demographic leakage had so little cultural effect.  We know that the major American crops were locally domesticated and that no Eurasian animals (other than dogs) seem to have made it across.  Writing, metallurgy, the wheel – doesn’t look as if  there was any transmission of that information.

I’m sure that in many cases,  castaways had a short and unhappy life.  The three Japanese fishermen who washed up on the Olympic  peninsula in 1834 were immediately enslaved by the local Indians. They were soon ransomed by the Hudson’s Bay company, but that didn’t happen in the olden days.   With no common language, I’ll bet those enslaved were the lucky ones.

Of course, random fishermen may not actually have had the know-how required to create those important cultural artifacts.  How much of modern technology could you recreate?  And there’s the problem of not having the tools to make the the tools that make the tools…

Some time ago, in a speculation that got cut from our book, I wondered if you might be able to detect a successful small colonization – say from a wrecked ship – by finding a localized patch of some advantageous allele on an Un-American haplotype. Such an allele would (in a simple scenario) spread out as a Fisher wave.  That’s probably not what is driving this C3* Y-chromosome patch ( although it’s possible).  Maybe that crew made it big –  got past the language barriers and introduced something – maybe pottery or better fishing techniques – that made them big kahunas.   That can amplify a Y-chromosome.

You don’t have to be Prometheus the Fire-Bringer: there are other possible routes to success. For example, the impetuous 15-year-old daughter of the local chief might have looked hard at one of the castaways and said ” Daddy, I want him. ” Once I thought that only happened in Disney movies, until I met an old lady in Socal whose Southern grandmother had done that very thing with her grandfather, a starved but handsome Yankee prisoner in Andersonville.  Or, maybe  a castaway happened to be wearing the correct Masonic symbol.

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51 Responses to Castaways

  1. Kwintussle Vindonslab says:

    *COUGH* Solutrean hypo *COUGH* thesis *HACK*

    Also, “The question is why this trans-Pacific demographic leakage had so little cultural effect.”

    *COUGH* Quetzalcoatl *WHEEZE* Agriculture *COUGH*

  2. How does one calculate the number of bright minds required to sustain a meme?

  3. misdreavus says:

    This whole idea floating around the WN blogosphere that whites, who were the first to settle the Americas, were promptly exterminated by a great horde of asiatic invaders is absolute nonsense.

    (That’s not quite what the Solutrean hypothesis says, but that is how it is commonly misinterpreted by morons.)

    First of all, even if it were true, I don’t think you quite want to go there. The Solutreans may have come from Europe, but they most certainly were not white! (Think what happens to hunter gatherers, almost every time they encounter a surging wave of technologically superior agriculturalists.) Looks like the great extermination of the Solutreans occurred on the wrong continent.

  4. misdreavus says:

    Also, maize and potatoes did not come from Japan, the Ainu are not white, and Quetzalcoatl was not a blonde haired, blue eyed deity.

    I am assuming the commenter above believes in all of these silly things, and I am probably right.

  5. genetiker says:

    The “HBD community” is a freakshow and a joke.

    Those who feel the same are invited to visit my website, where I’ve proven that Amerindians are part Nordic, and not the other way around, as David Reich would have it.

  6. Melykin says:

    I’m uncertain about leaving comments here now, since lately the atmosphere seems slightly unfriendly, and a bit elitist, and seem to be in-jokes that I don’t understand. So I will begin by saying that I am only an interested layperson so please don’t make rude remarks if my questions are foolish.

    I’m wondering about the Haida. Today they are noted for being more prosperous and generally more functional that other First Nations people in British Columbia. They are noted for owning successful fishing boats. In the past they were a fierce tribe that raided up and down the coast killing and taking slaves, like Vikings. I’m wondering if they were a separate, maybe later, arrival in the New World than the other Natives of BC. How ever, they were very vulnerable to smallpox and were almost wiped out by it, so they must have left the old world a long time ago.

    • harpend says:

      Interesting question, please do not be intimidated here. I am supposed to be a manager of this blog and occasionally I have no idea on earth what posts and responses are about. For example see the post below from ‘Kwintussle Vindonslab’. Either I am missing something or we have a commenter from another planet, who, by the way, is also welcome.

    • misdreavus says:

      We know what Kwintussle Vindonslab is all about. See here, from a well known neo-Nazi forum:

      Ditto for genetiker. Apparently, blonde haired, blue eyed people are singlehandedly responsible not only for the glories of Western civilization, but all civilizations everywhere. Ancient Greece and Rome? Founded by Nords, who gradually lost their shine after miscegenation with their swarthy inferiors. Genghis Khan? A red haired, green eyed Nordic. The Ainu? Nordics. Ancient Egypt, great Tenochtitlan, and the Moche pyramids? Yup, Nordics did that too. All great men of Europe were Nords, or part Nord.

      Madison Grant could have never dreamed of such nonsense in a fever-induced delirium.

      • They did indeed dream their dream: a must read is Heather Pringle’s book on the Ahnenerbe.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        The blonde blue eyed types were very late to the sophisticated boat building game. Swarthy phoenicians on the other hand could have spread their genes far and wide and probably did. Did they ship wreck in the americas way back yonder? I dunno, but at least they had the boat building technology to do so. Sorry neo nazis, but if I was a betting man and I was to wager what group made it across the Atlantic and made a serious cultural impact and minor genetic one those Olmec heads tell me they were a whole lot more africanized than nordic.

    • justpassingthru says:

      Captain Cook thought, on the basis of similarities between cultural artifacts (such as body-wraps woven of bark, war clubs, tattoos) that northwest coast Indians may have been related to Polynesians (or melo or micro I’m not sure which), but he at any rate had first hand experience of both before they were “corrupted” by white influence and he was a keen observer, for what that’s worth.

  7. I encountered a fellow years ago who had encountered several unwilling castaways and contributed to the failure of their ‘attempt’. He was an old guy in NE Botswana, roughly between Nata and Pandamatenga if you have a map handy.

    He told me about the best years of his life when the government has housed him, fed him, given him clothes and medical care, and not worked him very hard. I asked him how that happened, and he was a little bit vague. He was hoping it might happen again.

    I turned out that when he was a young man their hunting party watched a small airplane with engine failure land on a pan (like a dry lakebed). Two white men came out, looked around, saw the hunting party, and waved at them. The Bushmen did not know what these creatures could be, so in the interest of caution and safety they killed them. Soon after the government took him away to prison.

    He did understand that he had been in prison but he had no clear idea why. What had he done wrong?

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      That could make for an interesting science fiction story.

    • rob says:

      Did prisons there have conjugal visits or more informal access to women? It seems unusual that anyone would remember years without women around so fondly. Or that a bushman would take so readily to the yoke.

  8. ” We know of many cases in recent historical times in which Japanese fishing vessels with surviving crew were cast on the western shores of the Americas. ”

    That’s the key factor – “recent historical times”.

    In case of the Japanese castaways from 1834, they had a sufficiently seaworthy vessel that drifted for more than a year without sinking, and they were fortunate enough to have a lot of food on board (these were actually not fishermen but sailors on a cargo ship) and distillation equipment that they could use to desalinate water.

    In 1617, as far as I can tell, history does not tell us about any survivors, only about an abandoned ship.

    Castaways need a fairly advanced and large ship and either a lot of water or desalination equipment to make it to America in one piece. It took Spanish galleons, on average, 4 months to sail from Manila to Acapulco, with sails and navigating instruments. Castaways could drift much longer than that.

    The Japanese probably had ships capable of surviving the journey by the 12th century CE, but not much earlier than that.

    One additional difficulty for the Japanese castaways is the pattern of currents. Depending on where they start, there are two likely outcomes. They will either be swept south and then back across the ocean (and probably sink in the middle of the Pacific), or they will end up ashore somewhere in British Columbia (one of the most treacherous coastlines in the world.)

  9. A Erickson Cornish says:

    Many thanks for the direct links to the papers in question in this post.

  10. RS says:

    > That’s the key factor – “recent historical times”. In case of the Japanese castaways from 1834, they had a sufficiently seaworthy vessel that drifted for more than a year without sinking, and they were fortunate enough to have a lot of food on board (these were actually not fishermen but sailors on a cargo ship) and distillation equipment that they could use to desalinate water.

    You’re missing something: fisherman in the sea may be able to catch fish, as well as other pelagic organisms, like plants. As for water, how did voyaging Polynesians and Norse and Irish handle it? Pre-provisioning, maybe, but perhaps also rain/dew collection, I’m not sure. I don’t know about the vast Pacific so much, but it seems to me there is rather a lot of precipitation all the way from Sweden to Canada.

    What do you need to distill seawater on a small scale? Wouldn’t fire and glass/ceramic pretty much do it? On the other hand, not many non-expeditionary craft may have been thus equipped, even if such a practice were widely known. But maybe some were, and large merchant craft, as opposed to small fishing boats, may often have had expeditionary-like equipage.

    It also seems to me you could improvise it with a teapot and a couple of jars, if it mattered that much and you were clever. I mean a teapot or anything the like produces concentrated steam, and it doesn’t take a genius to corner some of the steam with a cooler vessel, and let it drip into a collector. Fuel supply could be a big issue though. But again, it might not be much of one on a large merchant craft whose outfit tends towards the expeditionary end of the scale.

    What’s with all the Japanese castaways in recent centuries, anyway — where’s the rest of E. Eurasia and Indonesia?

    As for durable seaworthy vessels, surely there was no shortage of those — effectively. If you blow out to sea in a bummy boat but happen to not encounter any fierce storms, then you’ve had yourself a seaworthy journey. There are no worthy or unworthy craft, only lethal and nonlethal journeys. If 80%, or for that matter 95% of castaways get capsized, so much the worse for them, but they do not particularly concern us at this late date, and that still leaves a whole lot of people. So I do think there’s a mystery here. If one group of people can get blown onto Australia one hell of a long time ago, why not another, and a third?

    • Polynesians collected fresh water on the islands and brought it on their trips.

      Yes, fishing could work. Problem is, there isn’t really a lot of fish in the middle of the ocean. And you need a steady supply, 2 or 3 lbs of fish per castaway, per day. But I suppose it’s possible. I don’t know much about ancient Japanese fishing techniques.

      Fire and glass/ceramic would do it, but you generally don’t want to start a big fire on a boat in the middle of the ocean unless you can do it in a very safe and controlled fashion (e.g. in a distillation apparatus that is custom designed to be used on boats.)

      As you’ve observed, there’s considerable (but irregular) precipitation in the ocean, which means that there’s a considerable number of storms. Your odds of avoiding all storms decline exponentially with time. Your odds of having perfect weather for 14 months in a row are practically nil.

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  12. Jim says:

    Several decades ago I saw photographs of the Ecuadorian and Japanese pottery in I believe it was Scientific American. The resemblance was very striking but at the time I believed that it had to be a remarkable coincidence.

    To Melykin – Greenberg is emphatic that Haida is Nadene. By the way the word “Nadene” is a combination of the Haida word “na” for people with the root “den-” used in Athabaskan languages for people. Linguists who believe that Haida is an isolate used the term “Dene” instead of “Nadene”

    I had a long discussion here once with I believe “Rachel” about Quetzalcoatl. There are no pre-conquest sources for this myth. Quetzalcoatl is an imaginative if rather implausible combination of a traditional Meso-American serpent trickster god with Jesus Christ.

  13. a very knowing American says:

    There’s evidence — deforestation, faunal introductions, and apparent butchery sites, but (so far) no tools — for hunter-gatherers on Madagascar from the late centuries BC. There are scattered hunter-gatherer populations in Madagascar who are physically different from neighboring farmers who might be survivors of these guys.

    Robert Blench. 2007. New paleozoogeographical evidence for the settlement of Madagascar. Azania 42

  14. Pingback: Castaways from Civilization | Junior Ganymede

  15. RS says:

    > why not another, and a third? [and a seventeenth?]

    I guess what’s most likely is that the supply of castaways just happens to balance the admittedly formidable sieve of negative factors — storms, inadequate survival materials, hostile reception — so that the number of successful meme/gene transfers is limited.

    However, you rather exaggerate by talking about avoiding all storms. You can survive some of them, obviously not all.

    Still, while the Jomon were numerous for foragers, if they made a gene/meme transfer, shouldn’t rice farmers, more numerous and technical, have made like 35? What the hell?

    Jomon seem to have been pretty technical and artistic though. In fact, I wouldn’t put it past them to have some sort of nicely provisioned merchant vessels. As a generality, the more merchant and expeditionary vessels you posit, the greater the mystery of the ‘missing’ meme/gene transfers.

    • RS says:

      I realize btw that few peoples ever made intentional expeditions or merchant forays into the open sea before ~1500 ; at least that’s what I always heard. I guess the Chinese ‘treasure ship’ explorations followed the coast in this pattern. I’m talking mostly about merchant and expeditionary craft getting blown or washed out to sea by accident.

      Although, apparently the (Yayoi I presume) Japanese did sail to China at a quite early date. So they either remembered that the mainland was there (which I don’t think is implausible at all, whether they wrote at that time or not), or they were among the relative few to intentionally fare the open ocean. Also, the Greeks and/or somebody prior discovered Britain and returned that knowledge to the mainland — which could have first happened through a ’round trip’ castaway event though I think probably not.

    • Anthony says:

      Getting blown that far off-course is probably an almost-entirely lethal event. The few that actually landed on the American coast would likely be rather low on supplies when they made landfall. What’s the likelihood that a boat would be carrying, say, enough rice to have enough left at landfall to plant even a small crop? (Also, what are the odds they’d make landfall somewhere on the Pacific Coast with enough flat land to grow rice?) The lost fishermen might have iron or steel tools, but how many seafarers would know how to recognize iron ore? Or even copper and tin ore? Or how to smelt it if they found it? They might know the techniques used to build better boats than the Indians had, but would they be able to recreate the tools? So successful technology transfer would be even more rare than actual crossings.

      The historical accidental crossings were made with boats which were probably more advanced than those available a thousand years earlier – Japanese and Chinese maritime technology wasn’t stagnant over that period.

    • It appears that Europeans never made it to South America before Columbus, even though it is a shorter trip than Japan to British Columbia (and way shorter than Japan to Ecuador.) In fact. Europeans never even settled the Azores before 1350 (Azores are 900 miles from Lisbon and its highest peak is visible from 100 miles away), and neither Europeans, nor Arabs, nor Africans ever settled Cape Verde Islands (400 miles from the African coast.)

      The number of gene/meme transfers = number of ocean trips, times the odds of being cast away, times the odds of surviving the voyage, times the odds of surviving the landing, times the odds of passing something to locals. Evidently, unless you have a strong maritime culture like post-1600 Japan or post-1300 Portugal, the first two terms alone give you an extremely low number.

      Also, the assumption that Asian genes made it to Ecuador directly from Japan does not seem very well founded in facts. According to the original article, the ethnic group that is closest genetically to Ecuadorians is not Ainu/Jomon, but Koryaks (Ainu’s neighbors, poorly known Northeast Asian people from Kamchatka Peninsula.)

      It seems that Jomon were partly or primarily land-based foragers, their successors – rice farmers – were even less likely to go out into the open sea, but some Koryak tribes were strongly maritime and it may be possible that, once upon a time, a boat with Koryak fishermen made it along the coast of America and ended up in Ecuador. It’s at least as plausible as the idea that some castaways from Hokkaido survived in the open ocean for 18 to 24 months and somehow currents took them to Ecuador.

  16. dearieme says:

    “I guess the Chinese ‘treasure ship’ explorations followed the coast in this pattern.” I understand that they weren’t explorations, that they simply visited places that were already known to their (the Chineses’) literate trading partners. Whether they had pilots and charts I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. They were no fools.

  17. bruce says:

    Thor Heyerdahl, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

  18. “How much of modern technology could you recreate?”

    Exactly. Even in the realm of ideas, it would be tough. How would you prove that the earth went around the sun? That you should boil water that looks suspicious? That people from other continents are exactly the same in all important characteristics, despite having been unrelated for a number of generations larger than the biggest number they use?

    I’m sorry, did I say that last one out loud?

    • gcochran9 says:

      If you had boughten a copy of my exotic survival kit, you’d be be prepared to make a composite bow or gunpowder [detailed instructions and illustrations] , and you’d have enough teff in your backpack to sow a field.

      • Those would likely impress the local authorities in most times and places, sure.

        Should we be concerned that you’ve put so much thought into this? You’ve worked through the Grandfather Paradox somehow and are preparing to launch?

  19. Jaim Jota says:

    Homer’s Odysseus may have been a better manual for a castaway to survive in the Antiquity. All his companions are killed at different shores, and only Ulisses survives and that because the King’s daughter falls in love with him. Classic! Killing castaways and foreigners was a rational and necessary procedure till modern times, when epidemies decimated humanity. In Tauris (now Crimea) the rutine was institutionalized and Iphigenia (in Euripides’s drama) was the priestess charged with the gruesome task of ritually sacrificing foreigners who landed on King Thoas’s shores. Foreigners were given no time to manufacture a composite bow, should they be fortunate enough to have with them your invaluable instructions.

  20. baloocartoons says:

    The background of Thomas Harlan’s “Flint” series was based on just such a Japanese ship that wandered to ancient Mexico and changed everything. This is reposted with gratitude and delight here:

  21. TWS says:

    Is it possible that the Jomon came the long way around the coast? Maybe earlier sites have been lost to the ocean.

  22. Greying Wanderer says:

    There’s a lot of myths about colonies being formed by the losers of a civil conflict. As myths go they strike me as being fairly plausible given a) people who want to kill you is a major incentive to get on a boat and run, b) the people on the boat wouldn’t just be sailors and c) they might have more supplies than a fishing or merchant ship.

  23. RS says:

    > some Koryak tribes were strongly maritime and it may be possible that, once upon a time, a boat with Koryak fishermen made it along the coast of America and ended up in Ecuador

    Good call. Rather cold in Kamchatka. Seems like anyone used to the place could probably make it around ‘the cold way’. That would make more sense if the Aleutian land bridge happened to be in place at the time, but is it also possible someone would follow the edge of the pack ice for some reason?

    As for keeping on going once you get to Alaska, BC, Oregon etc, I don’t think it’s that hard to motivate. One reason could be sheer wildness. After all, some people did intentionally sail into the open sea with no known destination — traipsing down the coast a really long way, though perilous (mainly because of hostile humans) is probably less crazy than that is.

    • RS says:

      > but is it also possible someone would follow the edge of the pack ice for some reason?

      Just a guess but might a lot of seals etc operate along its edge?

  24. justpassingthru says:

    Fortunately there exists a body of literature of persons who have made unintentional and intentional journeys in small boats both along coasts and across oceans and survived.
    Kayakers routinely travel from Alaska to Seattle along the inside passage (George Dyson). Food and fresh water are abundant. A coastal journey along the land bridge is not only possible but a certainty. Dr. Hannes Lindemann crossed the Atlantic in a folding kayak. A 60 year old couple (Ashenfelters) rowed from Seattle to Alaska. Hell, one man SWAM across the Atlantic towing a Zodiac.

    In his book ADRIFT, Stephen Callahan describes his harrowing crossing of the Atlantic in a small rubber raft after his boat had sunk. True, he had a solar distiller with which he could desalinate water, but even though (as someone said above) there are few fish mid-ocean, he survived on fish because his slowly drifting raft became a veritable reef complete with algae, barnacles, and a variety of fish that fed on up the food chain to top predators. And as for storms, they’re GOOD! (well, up to a point) because that’s how drifters replenish their water supplies. So, with luck and determination, it is likely that people have survived almost any crossing. Now whether they made any contribution to the cultures at the far end of their voyages is another question, to which some of you above have given good answers.

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  26. dearieme says:

    “One of the most remarkable pieces of evidence for Aberdeen’s interaction with the circumpolar world dates from around 1700, and astonishingly, represents an epic voyage from the Americas to Europe; perhaps exploration, perhaps misadven- ture. The University preserves an ‘Eskimaux ca- noe in which a native of that country was driven ashore near Belhelvie, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, and died soon after landing’. The first record of this kayak is in a diary written by the Rev. Francis Gastrell of Stratford-upon- Avon who visited Aberdeen in 1760. He says that, “In the Church . . . was a Canoo about seven yards long by two feet wide which about thirty two years since was driven into the Don with a man in it who was all over hairy and spoke a language which no person there could inter- pret. He lived but three days tho’ all possible
    care was taken to recover him.” At the time of Gastrell’s visit, the University Chapel was used as the library, and also as the museum, hence the ‘Canoo’ being ‘in the Church’. This enigmatic visitor has since been identified as a Greenlander, on the grounds of the style of his kayak. His arrival in Aberdeen seems almost miraculous …”


  27. dearieme says:

    And unlike Thor Heyerdahl, the Eskimo didn’t need to cheat by arranging a tow from a motor boat to start his voyage.

  28. CharlesCalthrop says:


    Damn it, everytime I think about it… If they had just reached that rope bridge… It was a perfect bottleneck for those Martini-Henry!

    They would had cut the ropes while keeping the locals at bay with the rifles, and on to more adventures.

    Every day I like this blog a little more.

  29. Justthisguy says:

    This makes me think of my favorite Poul Anderson story, “The Man Who Came Early.”

  30. Hunsdon says:

    And here I thought no one would recognize the reference, but CharlesCalthrop did. Whew! My faith in humanity is renewed for another day.

  31. Pingback: 2013: The year in review | Genetiker

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