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Mount Io, one of the still-active volcanoes

Researchers of Largest Volcanic Eruption in History Honored by Antiquity

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The prestigious Antiquity Trust has just announced its decision to award its Ben Cullen Prize for innovative archaeological research to a team of experts who studied the impact of a massive volcanic eruption that took place 7,300 years ago on Japan’s Tanegashima Island. The winners included eight archaeologists from universities in Japan and Sweden, who collaborated to perform an in-depth study of societal collapse and human resiliency in response to a world-altering natural disaster in prehistoric times. 

Prize Winning Research on Catastrophic Eruption 

The catastrophic eruption devastated the Jōmon communities who lived on Tanegashima island in 5,300 BC, leaving the survivors no choice but to abandon their traditional homeland for quite some time before finally returning. In an article published by Antiquity (the  sponsors of the Ben Cullen prize) in April 2023, the award-winning researchers revealed how the Jōmon people responded to the destruction of their homeland, both in the immediate aftermath and in the future. 

What they uncovered defied previous stereotypes, showing that the people’s patterns of adaptation were complex and demonstrated an ability to adjust to dramatic changes in living circumstances.  

Because of the originality and paradigm-challenging nature of their work, the Antiquity Trust selected the study authors to receive one of its most illustrious prizes, which is one of two they award to deserving archaeological researchers each year. 

Smoldering volcanic island in the archipelago of Japan 

Smoldering volcanic island in the archipelago of Japan. (Antiquity Publications Ltd) 

Challenging Assumptions about Natural Disasters and Human History 

As the scientists involved in this groundbreaking study explained, they wanted to add new layers of analytical complexity to the study of how ancient cultures reacted to natural disasters that caused a high loss of life and severe ecosystem damage. 

“Our article seeks to move away from the lingering assumption that natural disasters inevitably trigger ‘collapse’ and the disappearance of entire cultures,” they wrote in their 2023 Antiquity article. “Instead, we contend that further empirical work is required to examine a more complex cycle of catastrophic impact, initial recovery and the deeper transformation of particular cultural trajectories.”  

The study authors set out to undertake just this type of empirical research, to uncover detailed information about how the residents of Tanegashima Island dealt with the destruction of their homeland in 5,300 BC.  

Effects of the Largest Volcanic Eruption on Earth 

The Jōmon people of ancient Japan were hunter-gatherers who enjoyed the bountiful fruits of a rich and diverse ecosystem. But all of this changed in the most dramatic way possible more than 7,000 years ago, when the undersea Kikai Caldera erupted with ferocious intensity. It has been confirmed that the powerful explosion of the Kikai-Akahoya volcano was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, and residents of Tanegashima Island who managed to survive the blast and its fiery fallout had no choice but to flee as rapidly as possible.  

So complete was the devastation to the flora and fauna on Japan’s southern islands that large sections of them became completely uninhabitable. This included the entire landscape of Tanegashima Island, which was deserted for several centuries.  

But it seems the Jōmon people never forgot that the island had once been a part of their territory, and eventually settlers did return. 

2022 Hunga Tonga eruption, in the South Pacific 

2022 Hunga Tonga eruption, in the South Pacific. (Tonga Geological Services/Zuma Press/REWA/ Antiquity Publications Ltd) 

To gain a deeper understanding of the effects of volcanic activity on ancient hunter-gatherer societies, the researchers involved in the award-winning study sought to reconstruct people’s living patterns on the island both before and after the eruption. The team expanded their research to examine changes in vegetation, alterations in settlement patterns and population levels, changes in food gathering, processing and cooking practices, and other details that might be useful for a comparison. 

What they discovered with this unusually comprehensive approach was most enlightening.  

The pre-eruption Jōmon thrived in a fertile ecosystem that was covered with a lush evergreen forest. Settlements were large by hunter-gatherer standards, and the tools recovered during excavations showed that the people were harvesting abundant resources from the land, sea, and from local rivers as well. 

But the astonishingly destructive eruption of Kikai-Akahoya put an end to all of this. Layers of ash covered the surface of the island so completely that it was virtually impossible for anyone to live there for hundreds of years. But nature is resilient, and over time vegetation took root in the ashy soil and a new and far less fertile grassland environment grew where endless forests had once stood.  

Sometime in the fifth millennium BC people returned to the island, in reduced numbers and living in smaller settlements that tended to move from location to location quite frequently. The diet of the new generation of Jōmon was less diverse than their ancient ancestors, and it seems they adapted by relying more on tuber plants that grew underground and on marine resources that bounced back much more quickly than terrestrial plants and animals.  

While the Jōmon people did demonstrate resilience in returning to their once-uninhabitable ancient homelands, it was the way they adapted that caught the attention of the research team. 

“Overall, the paper looks at this long post-disaster recovery process and questions the simplistic framing of ‘resilience’ as a process of rebounding, unchanged, to a previous state,” explained Peter Jordan, a professor of Archaeology at Lund University in Sweden who led the study. “Instead, these Jōmon communities were constantly changing and adapting, and constantly developing new ways of life, long before the eruption and also long after.”  

Despite the passage of time, the post- and pre-eruption Jōmon societies were unmistakably part of the same culture.  

“We know there was massive loss of life, because evidence of human settlement drops away alarmingly and many large sites are abandoned under the ash,” stated study co-author Professor Mitsuhiro Kuwahata, an archaeologist from Japan’s Kyushu University. “At the same time, some people did survive, as we see direct continuity in some of their most iconic cultural traditions.” 

Honoring Unique Contributions to Archaeological Science 

The Antiquity Trust has chosen to reward this new research project for its disclosure of complex realities where previously more simplistic concepts were widely accepted. As such it represents a triumph of the scientific method, while revealing the benefits of a more creative approach to problem-solving. 

“We are surprised, thrilled, and of course deeply honored to be awarded this international prize,” said Peter Jordan, the study´s lead author and principle architect, in a statement. “This is very much a team effort, bringing together researchers and institutions from across Sweden and Japan.”  

Carrying the name of a promising young British archaeologist who died unexpectedly in 1995 at the age of 31, the Ben Cullen prize was first awarded in 1996. Its purpose is to acknowledge outstanding and original contributions in the field of archaeology, and is given out to one research team whose work was published in Antiquity each year. 

Top image: Mount Iō, one of the still-active volcanoes within the Kikai-Akahoya caldera Source:名古屋太郎 / CC BY-SA 3.0/Antiquity Publications Ltd 

References 

Junzo Uchiyama, Mitsuhiro Kuwahata, Yukino Kowaki, Nobuhiko Kamijō, Julia Talipova, Kevin Gibbs, Peter D. Jordan and Sven Isaksson. 2024. Disaster, survival and recovery: the resettlement of Tanegashima Island following the Kikai-Akahoya ‘super-eruption’, 7.3ka cal BP. Antiquity. Available at: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.31  

 
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Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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