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A piece of animal bone used for fortune-telling excavated at the Makimuku ruins in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture. It has three burn marks in the middle.

Ancient Japanese Queen Himiko may have Burned Animal Bones to Tell the Future


Archaeologists believe that a burnt boar scapula found in the ruins of Makimuku in Japan in 2015 may tie the ancient shaman Queen Himiko and leaders of the Yamataikoku ruling establishment with the practice of burning animal bones to tell the future.

The bone was found while digging in Makimuku, which is near the city of Sakurai in Nara Prefecture. The city’s education board announced the discovery of the bone in the ruins, which scholars think was an important city in the Yamataikoku state that Himiko ruled.

A pillar marks the location of the ancient Makimuku ruins

A pillar marks the location of the ancient Makimuku ruins. (Takanuka/CC BY 3.0)

Himiko’s Tomb

Ancient Origins reported on the find of a structure at Makimuku in early 2014:

Archaeologists in Japan have uncovered the remains of an ancient building that they believe was the palace of the shaman Queen Himiko, who is said to have ruled Yamatai in 3rd century A.D.  Scholarly debate over the identity of Himiko and the location of her domain Yamatai have raged for centuries and has been described as 'the greatest debate over the ancient history of Japan.'

The Makimuku ruins measure about 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) east to west and about 0.93 of a mile (1.5 km) from north to south. The ruins have ancient burial mounds, including what some people say is Himiko’s tomb, a 306-yard (280-meter) structure called the Hashihaka.

The Hashihaka mound in Nara Prefecture

The Hashihaka mound in Nara Prefecture. (CC0)

Himiko and the Oracle Bones

An ancient Chinese fortune-telling method that was exported to Japan involved burning animal bones, known as ‘ oracle bones ’, and examining the marks and changes in its color to divine the future.

Other people in the ancient world (and some people today) look at slain animal parts, including bones, to tell the future. People also use tarot cards , astrology, crystals, daggers, dream interpretation , palm reading, reading tea leaves, and many other methods in attempting to get an idea of what the future holds.

A pit of oracle bones found in Yinxu, Anyang

A pit of oracle bones found in Yinxu, Anyang. (Chez Cåsver/CC BY 2.0)

The boar bone found at Makimuku measures 6.6 inches (16.7 cm) long by 2.64 inches (6.7 cm) wide.

"Three round marks were apparently burned into the bone with a stick. The bone was unearthed along with pottery, a wooden item and other animal bones from an oval hole," The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported .

The hole where the bone was found is on the east side of the largest building of its type from the early third century in Japan. Archaeologists found the ruins in 2009. This is the building that scholars think might have been Himiko’s palace.

117 frog bones have also been found at the site and there is a suggestion that they may have been used as an offering to the gods or in some other kind of religious rites. There are scratch marks on 36 of the bones, but it is uncertain if they were intentional, result of cutting the animals apart, or due to mice gnawing on the bones. It is known, however, that frogs were considered sacred animals in the mid-3rd century, the time these remains were buried.

Telling Queen Himiko’s Story

The newspaper said “characteristics of the bone” indicated it was used to tell fortunes during the Yayoi Pottery Culture period of the fifth century BC to the third century AD. The divination method was introduced to Japan from China and is described in the third century AD Chinese history book Gishiwajinden. The book, whose title means The Chronicles of Wa, tells of Japanese climate and society around the time it was published. The Chinese called Japan “Wa” then. Gishiwajinden is the first known textual reference to Japan.

In Section 3: Political and Diplomatic Matters, the books says:

This country originally had a man who was made ruler. Some seventy or eighty years before, however, the land of Wa became agitated and the years passed with the countries making raids on each other. They at last together set up a woman, making her ruler, whom they called Himiko.
She uses sorcery to skillfully hold the people. She has reached quite an old age already and has no husband…Very few have seen her since she became ruler.

The link to the book excerpt has many footnotes that give explanations of the life and times of the queen and people of Wa.

Himiko, Queen of Yamataikoku. (Xapaga tocnxnpo/CC BY SA 4.0)

Queen Himiko sent a delegation with tribute to Chinese Emperor Cao Rui in 238 AD. The Chinese recognized her in this way, according to the blog Heritage of Japan:

Herein we address Himiko ( Pimiko is used), Queen of Wa, whom we now officially call a friend of Wei …  [Your ambassadors] have arrived here with your tribute, consisting of four male slaves and six female slaves, together with two pieces of cloth with designs, each twenty feet in length. You live very far away across the sea; yet you have sent an embassy with tribute. Your loyalty and filial piety we appreciate exceedingly. We confer upon you, therefore, the title "Queen of Wa  Friendly to Wei".

Himiko, the “Magic Mirror,” and Fortune Telling

It is also said that Queen Himiko received 100 bronze mirrors from the Chinese emperor in 239 AD. The gift may seem odd by today’s standards, but those objects were highly valued at the time. That means the bronze mirrors may have been used to create or secure political alliances.

When  researchers analyzed a “magic mirror” linked to the shaman queen (legends say she used the mirror for divination), they found it had a slight unevenness to its surface – so slight the naked eye cannot recognize it. That uneven surface creates patterns on the back as light reflects off of the front of the mirror, seeming to project a magical image.

The Heritage of Japan site says there were 29 countries in Japan when Himiko lived and that Yamataikoku under queen Himiko had well-organized laws and taxes and thriving trade. It had 70,000 households. “Her people were noted to have been mainly gentle and peace-loving,” the blog states, paraphrasing the Gishiwajinden.

Young Himiko receiving her oracle mirror. (CC BY SA 4.0)

Archaeologist Kaoru Terasawa said the location of the boar bone indicates fortune-telling using animal bones was done among the people but gradually was adopted by the Japanese hierarchy.

"(The finding) is significant in thinking about how animal bone fortune-telling performed at the grass-roots level during the Yayoi period evolved into a part of the national system," Terasawa told The Asahi Shimbun.

Top Image: A piece of animal bone used for fortune-telling excavated at the Makimuku ruins in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture. It has three burn marks in the middle. These bones may have been used by Queen Himiko to tell the future. Source: Toshiyuki Hayashi

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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