Race across the Pacific

By William Wetherall

A review of
Jon Turk
In the Wake of the Jomon:
Stone Age Mariners and a Voyage Across the Pacific

New York: International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 2005
287 pages, with b/w illustrations, $24.95 (cloth)

A version of this article appeared in
The Japan Times, 24 July 2005, page 9 (The Asian Bookshelf)

Midway through "In the Wake of the Jomon" comes a paragraph that poses all the questions Jon Turk ponders in this book.

"My introduction to Kennewick Man echoed through my musings like a voice from a monk in a Tibetan monastery: 'Paddle three thousand miles across the ocean wilderness, and when you come back, describe the sound of one hand clapping. Or, if you can't answer that one, tell me why people are the way they are. Tell me why "Homo erectus" migrated to Siberia or why Jomon families left their homes and sailed north, into the ice -- into the unknown. And while you're at it, tell me why Jon Turk chooses to camp on these snow-covered beaches.'"

Kennewick Man is the name given a male skeleton found along the Columbia River in Washington in 1996. Radiocarbon tests said he had lived there about 9,500 years ago. By law his relics would have gone to Amerindian tribes that claimed he was an ancestor. Except the bones appeared to be Caucasoid. And some anthropologists wanted to subject the ancient hunter to further scientific indignities. As David Hurst Thomas' book "Skull Wars" puts it, Kennewick Man has become the battleground for Native American identity.

The bones were not what the tribes had hoped, but neither were they exactly Caucasoid. A report posted on a U.S. government Web site on the findings of every kind of physical examination except a DNA analysis, which was not possible, concludes that "Kennewick appears to have strongest morphological affinities with populations in Polynesia and southern Asia, and not with American Indians or Europeans in the reference samples."

Years before this, there was evidence that Old Mongoloids had migrated from South Asia into Indonesia and the Pacific as far as Australia, and up the coast of China to Japan. They traveled by foot if not by sea, for at times the ocean was lower, and many of today's islands were connected to each other and to the continent by dry land. The seas were higher for New Mongoloids, who more recently came to Japan from northern China and central Asia, mostly by way of Korea.

Turk, who until the discovery of Kennewick Man had never heard of the Jomon, a prehistoric people, concluded that Jomonesque mariners had journeyed up the Kurils and along the coasts of Kamchatka and Chuckchi into the Americas. To prove that such a trip could have been made in small boats along the rim of the North Pacific, rather than by foot across a land bridge in the Bering Strait, Turk and his equally crackpot American and Russian companions sailed or paddled from Hokkaido to Alaska on a "suicide expedition" in two legs, the first in 1999 in sailing trimarans, the second the following year in sea kayaks.

In 1971, Turk stuffed a chemistry Ph.D. into the glove box of his car, lashed a canoe on top, and headed for the Arctic. A self-styled adventurer and writer, he is also a life-educated anthropologist without an ideological portfolio -- a rare species these days. This narrative of his wanderlust-inspired if satellite navigation-guided journey -- not exactly "across the Pacific," nor unequivocally "in the wake of the Jomon" -- is gripping, humorous, prideful, humble, even elegant.

Seidosha plans to publish a Japanese version. Copies will sell like repro Jomon pots at museum shops. Turk will find himself very busy giving interviews in the wake of the neoanimist turbulence his thesis will churn in the sea of Jomon romanticism.

Jomon revivalists, trying to upstage Turk, will set out for the mouth of the Columbia in dugouts. Ainu activists will want to repatriate Kennewick Man -- whose reconstructed face could get him work as a stand-in for Star Trek Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Sauk Chief Black Hawk, Giants slugger Kiyohara Kazuhiro, or even actor Ichikawa Ebizo XI (formerly Ichikawa Shinnosuke VII). Neocons will confuse "Jomon" with " Yamato" and claim "the Japanese" discovered America.

Read carefully so as not to miss the lines in which Turk wonders why the Jomon he believes journeyed to the Americas died out.

William Wetherall is an independent researcher and writer.