Baikal Archaeological Project to undertake a long-term dig in the Japanese Hokkaido islands

Longstanding anthropology project recently received unprecedented third SSHRC grant to continue studying northern, Holocene-period hunter-gatherers.

Jamie Hanlon - 18 March 2011

(Edmonton) A longstanding anthropology project at the University of Alberta has recently received an unprecedented third Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant to continue studying northern, Holocene-period hunter-gatherers.

This new Major Collaborative Research Initiatives grant, worth $2.5 million over seven years, will allow researchers in the Baikal Archaeological Project to undertake a long-term dig in the Japanese Hokkaido island chain, one that will provide them with comparative data of the two areas. And as Andrzej Weber, Baikal's project director, explains, it will also fill in some significant gaps in the history of the Ainu, the indigenous people of this northern Japanese island chain.

"There's not a lot known about the Ainu people prior to the Japanese contact," said Weber. "We want to extend the history of the Ainu people as far back as possible and understand the history of the people a lot better. There's great potential for that."

Their focus will be on Rebun Island, in the northwestern part of the prefecture of Hokkaido. There, researchers have already identified two sites that they will use to gather archaeological evidence: one being a burial site from the late Jomon period (from 2,000 to 1,000 BC) and the other a shell midden (area where hunter-gatherers would consume their catches of shellfish) from the middle Jomon (3,000-2,000 BC) that is buried beneath a contemporary Japanese village.

"Both sites have been tested in the past so we know their archaeological potential," said Weber.

The project team will use the same processes and collection methodologies used at the Lake Baikal project site in Siberia-which focuses on studying archaeological, osteological, environmental, genetic and ethnographic data pertaining to the Middle Holocene hunter-gathers in that region-to gather and interpret the Japanese data. Despite the difference in distance, Weber notes that there are likely common elements in the life, lifestyle and migratory patterns of the peoples of these two regions.

"There's a similarity of environment, of culture, history, of certain interactions with the climate that will make us understand what happened in both places a lot better," he said. "We are looking to see how both of these regions were situated within their own respective larger cultural and natural environments."

Some Baikal researchers will continue to work at the Russian site while their colleagues begin this new project in co-operation with Japanese researchers who will become part of the multi-national Baikal team. Weber says that the new seven-year funding will likely open up opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to work alongside the researchers. Such an opportunity will carry on a Baikal fieldwork tradition that has seen its graduates move on to posts around the world.

"Students who get involved will be exposed to a large number of field-leading international scholars," he said. "It will be of huge benefit to them to function for a few years in such an environment. "

With their third consecutive SSHRC grant announced and ongoing project support from the U of A, Weber says that his team is poised to carry on research that will bear a "more visible, more profound" academic impact. He admits the plans are ambitious, and with such plans "one needs a little more time to implement all of the ideas." Combined with ongoing, developing relationships with other international archaeological groups doing similar research in the circumpolar north, this alliance will allow Baikal researchers to share the wealth of knowledge they will have collected from these site, adding their expertise to a broader ranging field of study.

"By putting this comparative aspect of our research together, I think that we can make a lot stronger, meaningful and broader contribution to the field of Holocene hunter-gatherer research," said Weber.