Digging up dirt. A 1999 excavation at Hijiridaki Cave raises doubts about earlier findings at the site in western Japan.

Were Artifacts Planted at Japanese Site?

TOKYO--A team of archaeologists has cast strong doubt on claims that a cave in western Japan contains evidence of early human habitation. The accuracy of the cave findings is also the subject of a lawsuit filed this month by the family of the site's lead scientist, who killed himself after a magazine claimed the findings might be bogus.

Archaeologist Mitsuo Kagawa led excavations in 1961 and 1962 of the Hijiridaki Cave on Kyushu Island in western Japan. The digs uncovered human and animal bones and stone artifacts, some of which Kagawa and his colleagues concluded date back 10,000 years or more. Although the dating has always been controversial, Hijiridaki made its way into Japanese textbooks because it was the only site in Japan where stone tools and human bones have been found together. But after another research team visited the site in December 1999, it concluded that, based on radiocarbon dating, the bones and charcoal in the cave are no more than 700 years old.

The new report, issued in June and summarized this month in the Japanese journal Paleolithic Archaeology, agrees that some of the artifacts are from the late Paleolithic period. But it points out that artifacts ranging from 2000 to 20,000 years old were found mixed together, and in a stratum above the one yielding material that is 600 to 700 years old.

After an amateur archaeologist was caught planting artifacts at a second, unrelated site in Japan last year (ScienceNOW, 7 November 2000), a weekly news magazine, Shukan Bunshun, picked up the Hijiridaki story. In March Kagawa hanged himself, saying in a note that he was acting "to protest articles alleging our discoveries were faked." On 1 November his family filed a suit against Shukan Bunshun's publisher, editor, and the reporter who wrote the stories. The family is seeking $460,000 in compensation and a published apology; the magazine denies printing anything defamatory about Kagawa.

Hideji Harunari, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura City, near Tokyo, and one of the organizers of the recent investigation, believes that "the best explanation for these conditions is that [the 1960s findings] are fake." But he adds that he does not believe that Kagawa was at fault, noting that Kagawa has long held that the Hijiridaki findings needed to be reexamined.

Related sites

Link to Hijiridaki report
Japanese archaeology
Japan's archaeological sites and related research institutions