Traveling through Time and Space, Tracking History of Human
Hirofumi Kato , Professor
Center for Ainu & Indigenous Studies
High school : Hokkaido Yubari Kita High School
Academic background : Doctorate from Tsukuba University
- Research areas
- prehistoric archeology, indigenous archeology, archaeology of north
- Research keywords
- Human migration and adaptation, Cultural heritage issues, Indigenous peoples, Ainu
What is archaeology?
I am an archeologist who is engaged in teaching and researching archeology at Hokkaido University. A lot of people may think of Indiana Jones or Master Keaton when they hear the word “Archeologist.” Unfortunately, real archeologists don’t get to swing whips around, steal treasure, or go on other thrilling adventures like that. Archeologists do, however, get to analyze things created by humans, as well as the remains they have left behind, over a period of roughly 7 million years up until the present, and to recreate their lives from these artifacts. Based on these resources, archeologists are fascinated with the diversity of human culture in the world, and this allows us to feel that we are opening new doors into history.
Photo 1: Unearthing 40,000 year-old remains in Siberia
Photo 3: Workshop given by international archeologists
People tend to think that archeology only relates to ancient times. In fact, archeology is not restricted by time. Our target will cover from the origins of human being to comtemporary cultural heritage. We look at town houses from the Edo period as well as sites of modern battles such as Gettysburg. Personally, I have surveyed archaeological sites in Africa from 200,000 year ago, prehistoric campsites dating back 40,000 years when humans coexisted with mammoths in Siberia, and the remains of bear festivals held in the 18th century in the Shiretoko peninsula in Hokkaido. Archeology focuses on the entire world and the existence of mankind throughout history.
Photo 2: Pottery left by marine hunters (from Shiretoko)
What are you engaged in now?
I would like to introduce two current projects. One of them involves human adaptation in the north including Siberia. Humans live in a huge range of environments and diverse areas all of the world (with the exception of the South Pole and a few uninhabited islands), but despite this, we are biologically a single species – Homo sapiens. Physiologically, our biological characteristics are categorized as tropical species. Humans are not capable of adapting to a wide range of global environments due to their inherent sameness, but rather could be said to have extended without limits into a range of living environments due to the diversity of the cultures they have created. Modern humans, who first emerged in Africa, reached Siberia between approximately 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. The details of how they adapted to the new environment still largely remain unclear, and many researchers are interested in this issue. We are working with researchers from China and Russia to jointly excavate in the thick deposit, trying to infer ancient technology and thought through excavated stone tools, and to reconstruct paleo-environment through excavated animal bones.
Another such project involves our efforts to convert past cultural heritage, such as archaeological finds and historical monuments, into cultural resources that can be used by contemporary society and descendant communities. So far, scientific research has mainly been carried out by specialists, so local communities, including indigenous people, have been the mere recipients of the results of such studies. Today, there is a global movement towards redefining the relationships between researchers, regional communities, and the indigenous people. Hokkaido has a rich historical cultural heritage that relates to the Ainu as indigenous people in Hokkaido. We are discussing with them and the local stakeholders how to effectively use it for the future, as well as how to ensure that the artifacts are not simply stored but used as cultural resources within local communities.
Photo 4: Survey with international students
What are you aiming to do next?
Archeology is becoming a profession with global standards, which supersedes national borders. We are working with international universities to create a place for study and bring a wide range of students together in Hokkaido. Under this concept, we have been organizing an international field school in Rebun Island since 2011. Over 20 students have participated in this field school from Canada, US, UK and Russia and so on every year. We will continue to explore past human life through archaeological finds from the sand dune overlooking the blue seas of Hokkaido. We would like to create a place where the present meets the past.
(1) Kato, H., The People who Traversed Siberia, Toyo Shoten (2008) (in Japanese).
(2) Kato H., “The Hokkaido sequence and the archaeology of the Ainu people”, in C. Smith ed. The Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, Springer, New York (2014).
(3) Kato H., “Whose archaeology?: Decolonizing Archaeological Perspective in Hokkaido Island”, Reader on Indigenous Archaeologies, eds. M. Wobst, S. Hart and M. Bruchac, Left Coast Press,Walnut Creek, CA. pp.314-321 (2010).