People and Culture

Katsunori Takase

Reconstructing the Lost History and Lifestyle of the Kuril Ainu

Katsunori Takase , Associate Professor

Graduate School of Letters (Department of Humanities and Human Sciences, Faculty of Letters)

High school : Hokkaido Sapporo Minami High School

Academic background : Graduate School of Letters, Hokkaido University

Research areas
Prehistoric archaeology
Research keywords
archaeology, Kuril Ainu, Kuril Islands, Kamchatka Peninsula

What are you aiming for?

The purpose of my study is to reconstruct the history of the Kuril Ainu, an indigenous people of the Northern Kuril Islands. They used the Kuril dialect of the Ainu language, and, though in fragments, their activities and customs were recorded in Russian and Japanese documents since the end of the seventeenth century. However, after they were forced to move from the Northern Kurils to Shikotan Island of the Southern Kurils in 1884, their population fell rapidly and today flame keepers of their culture are not identified. No one knows clearly how they lived before the seventeenth century and where they had come from. I am tackling these questions using methodologies of archaeology.


What kind of research are you doing?

Archaeology approaches mankind’s past not based on written records (historical documents) but based on physical objects (material culture). If there are materials that evidence their occupation, we can study the history of the region even if there is no historical document. Thus, archaeological study plays a significant role in revealing the history of the Kuril Ainu who did not use script and about whom there are only a few records written by Russians or Japanese.

Archaeological study consists of fieldwork (general survey and excavation) and laboratory work (archaeological examinations and physicochemical analyses of excavated specimens). Through study on age and distribution of Naiji Pottery, characteristic clay vessels used by the Kuril Ainu, I found that they suddenly appeared in the uninhabited Northern Kurils during a period from the latter half of the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century. It was also proved that at this stage that the Kuril Ainu lived in a wide area of the southern Kamchatka Peninsula as well as the Northern Kurils. However, with large-scale expansion of Russians into the Kamchatka Peninsula in the early eighteenth century, the Kuril Ainu withdrew to the southern tip of the peninsula and focused on the use of the Northern Kurils. The Kuril Ainu documented in written records had already experienced such a turbulent period between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Excavation of a pit dwelling in the Nalychevo site, located in the southeastern
Kamchatka Peninsula. The investigation of this site cluster from 2005 to 2007 was the starting point of tracing the footsteps of the Kuril Ainu in the Kamchatka Peninsula

Fieldwork at the Siyushk 1 site on the coast of Kuril Lake, the southern Kamchatka Peninsula (2011). This excavation revealed the date of Naiji Pottery, which is the most important and fundamental artifact in archeological study of the Kuril Ainu. Since it is cold there even in summer, a wool hat and a winter coat are necessary.



What is your next goal?

Naiji pottery from the Kamchatka Peninsula. This kind of clay vessel has also been excavated in Hokkaido and Sakhalin.

The Bol’shaja Sarannaja 1 site (indicated by an arrow) found in 2014. A considerable number of Kuril Ainu sites are still waiting for discovery in the southeastern part of the Kamchatka Peninsula.


I aim to test two hypotheses. One is a hypothesis on the economic change experienced by the Kuril Ainu. We can infer that there may be a difference in their economic conditions between the period when they occupied widely also in the Kamchatka Peninsula (from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century) and the period when they lived mainly in the Northern Kurils (from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century). This is because it was easy to obtain daily necessities, such as wood, obsidian, brown bears, reindeers, and bighorn sheeps in the Kamchatka Peninsula, whereas these resources are scarce in the Northern Kurils. It was difficult to secure even wood for fuel and dugout canoes, which were essential for crossing straits. I set up a hypothesis that after the eighteenth century the Kuril Ainu more stressed on trade of fur of sea otters and other animals in order to obtain these resources from other people.
The other hypothesis is about the origin of the Kuril Ainu. Their language and a part of material culture have some commonalities not only with the Hokkaido Ainu but also with the Sakhalin Ainu. I have a hypothesis that migration of the Sakhalin Ainu mainly contributed to the formation of the Kuril Ainu. My task in the future is to verify this hypothesis through comparison with implements of the Sakhalin Ainu from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century.
My hope is that archaeology can present more dynamic history of the Kuril Ainu than we imagined through examinations of these hypotheses in the near future.


Temporal changes in occupation area of the Kuril Ainu