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Athena Review: Vol.3, no.2: Recent Finds in Archaeology 

A Hoax in Japan

Impressive Paleolithic scheme deflated

There is one thing that all spectacular hoaxes have in common - they provide “evidence” for something we already want to believe. Whether alien abductions or seances with the dead, hoaxes reflect personal and cultural hopes and desires. This is no less true with archaeological hoaxes. Take, for instance, the Piltdown Man affair ca. 1908, in which the stained jaw of a modern ape (orangutan) was attached to a semi-fossilized recent human braincase, and accepted by much of the scientific community of the early 20th century as a direct human ancestor. This fairly obvious deception worked because most scholars at the time wanted to believe that our progenitors had large brains and primitive bodies, not the other way around (i.e. the small-brained, bipedal ancestors we have since discovered). So is the case with a recent hoax perpetrated by Shinichi Fujimura, a national hero in Japan, that has both overwhelmed and shamed the Japanese authorities, calling into question several new theories of Japan’s ancient heritage.

 Once known as “God’s hand” or the “divine digger” for his luck in finding important artifacts, Fujimura began making his first discoveries as an amateur archaeologist in the 1970s. He shot to fame in 1981 after discovering the oldest artifacts then known in Japan, from a stratum dating back over 40,000 years. Since that time he became the Deputy Director of the private Tohoku Paleolithic Institute and worked on a reported 180 prehistoric sites in the country. Repeatedly, he was able to rewrite history with progressively older finds, pushing back the antiquity of Japan by hundreds of years at a time. At his most recent excavation at the site of Kami-Takamori in Tsukidate, of Miyagi Prefecture (fig.1; ca. 190 miles north of Tokyo), he claimed to discover artifacts dating back to 600,000 years ago (in the era of Homo erectus) - objects that appeared to show that Paleolithic man at this time was far more sophisticated than heretofore believed.

While there were few public criticisms of his work in academia, others eventually became suspicious of his uncanny luck. Thus it was that shortly after 6 a.m. on October 22, 2000 reporters from the Mainichi Shimbun (Mainichi Daily) caught Fujimura on videotape burying stone tools within the sediment of the Kami-Takamori site. His disgrace became public on November 5th when the paper published photographs of him digging a hole, placing artifacts within it, and then tramping down the earth again with his boot. In his televised apology, Fujimura blamed his deceit on the burden of “having to find ever older sites,” and confessed to burying 61 out of 65 items that were unearthed from the dig this year, as well all 29 of the finds from the Soshin Fudozaka excavations in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island (fig.1). However, Fujimura insisted that the remaining four artifacts as well as supposed post-holes found at the site were genuine. Furthermore, he at first claimed that his important discoveries at other sites were also unadulterated, (although he later confessed to planting artifacts in at least 42 sites), and that no other researchers were involved in the scam. “I personally planted them and no one else took part. Please don’t discredit the whole dig, because there were some authentic finds,” Fujimura said. “My actions were a disgrace...I’m really sorry for my family and friends.” Tragically, an associate, Mitsuo Kagawa, a 78 year-old professor emeritus, took his own life in the wake of the recent scandal, after being accused by a magazine of having also planted artifacts.  As hoaxes go, Fujimura’s methods were crude and rather obvious; simply put, he “salted” various archaeological sites he was excavating with artifacts from his own collections. In light of modern excavation methods it is difficult to see how this was not discovered almost immediately - the sediment surrounding the artifacts would undoubtedly have appeared disturbed to the trained eye. Moreover, such stunts as leading reporters during a news conference back to the site and making a fantastic new discovery on the spot, would certainly arouse the suspicions of any reasonably healthy skeptic. In addition, even a researcher who worked with Fujimura for over a decade in various excavating projects was forced to note that, “Every historically significant finding was made while others were not digging,” which of itself, one would think, would lead others to suspect.

[Fig.1: Map of Japan showing two site areas with planted "Paleolithic" artifacts, including Soshin Fudozake on Hokkaido Island, and Kami-Takamori in Miyagi prefecture, the center of Fujimora's activities.]

So it is amazing that over the course of perhaps 20 years of deception, so few dissentions were voiced to Fujimura’s spectacular discoveries. Only two scholars, Oda Shizuo and Charles Kealley, publicly voiced their concerns about Japan’s Paleolithic discoveries; however, even while noting that 90% or more of the Early Paleolithic sites and artifacts were found by one person [Fujimura] and the artifacts showed little change over 100,000s of years, they could not conceive of the blatant deception that was the real problem.

Fujimura’s straightforward con was undoubtedly accepted by the establishment, as well as the popular press, because it gave them evidence of what they already wanted to believe - the great antiquity of the Japanese people. In particular, the Japanese are pressed to compare the age of humanity in their lands against that on the Chinese mainland, where hominids are known from as early as 1.3 million years ago (see p.5). Since the roots of modern Japanese society are found in China, and its culture ever since has been influenced from the mainland, the Japanese have suffered from a sense of lacking a purely native beginning. Thus Fujimura’s discovery of an increasingly ancient Japanese Paleolithic - with perhaps the earliest evidence for true human culture (i.e. house building) not only in Asia but in the entire world - was a source of tremendous national pride.

Officials responded almost immediately to Fujimura’s confession by removing objects from his excavations from museum displays and canceling a large portion of the Tohoku Institute’s funding. Not long after, publishers offered to rewrite scholastic history books to remove any mention of Fujimura’s finds. Soon, other archaeological confessions followed. Junichi Nagasaki, an assistant professor at Sapporo International University, who had worked with Fujimura at the Shimobiman-nishi excavations admitted that he did not bother to scientifically date the sediment in which artifacts were found before declaring they were 500,000 years old. “We haven’t carried out a survey to determine the age of the stratum,” Nagasaki disclosed. “The estimated age was decided by me, Fujimura, (Toshiaki) Kamada (the head of the Tohoku Paleolithic Institute) and some others...I hope we can determine the precise age with future research.”

In light of the broadening scandal scholars have begun to reevaluate not just the 40-plus excavations where Fujimura has by now admitted to deception, but all twenty years of his discoveries, and many related claims of Paleolithic findings. Moreover, scholars have begun to question the closed academic environment that allowed such fraud to survive. It is still too soon to evaluate how Japanese Paleolithic studies will evolve, and whether the earliest appearance of humans in the land will once again rest at about 30,000 BP - approximately as it was known before Fujimura began his work.

Michele A. Miller

[Oda, Shizuo and Charles T. Keally. 1986. “A Critical Look at the Palaeolithic and ‘Lower Palaeolithic’ Research in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan.” Jinruigaku Zasshi (Journal Anthropological Soc. Nippon), 94: 325-361; Oda, Shizuo. “Doubts about the Stone Artifacts and Dates for the Miyagi Early Palaeolithic Sites.” Kagaku Asahi, July 1985, pp.27-29. (English summary by C.T. Keally, 27 Aug. 2001, rev. 12 Nov. 2001); Keally, C.T. 17 Nov. 2000. “Japan Scandals - This Time It’s Archaeology.”; Mainichi Daily News (Mainichi Shimbun): 6 Nov. 2000, “Dirty digger unearthed;” 11 Nov. 2000, “Archaeological Fraud at Shimobimannishi;” 22 Dec. 2000, “Digger’s deeds bury book;” 29 Sept 2001]

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