The Yonaguni Monument
The end of the last Ice Age changed shorelines dramatically, a fact that’s had a slowly growing effect on archaeology. The Bering Land Bridge was widely considered the culprit for human colonization of the Americas as early as the 1930s, and more recently the theory that humans stuck close to the now-drowned shores has been used to reconcile Clovis First with the pesky pre-Clovis evidence that keeps turning up. Even sticking to the mainstream, you have things like the recent reports of petroglyphs under Lake Michigan and, outside of North America, there’s the whole story of Doggerland. Cryptoarchaeologists have been moving in the same headspace too. You still get putative pyramids in Bosnia and “Chinese” ruins in Australia, but increasingly the strange stuff is being located offshore. Even as this article was being written a tempest developed over the supposed discovery of Atlantis using Google Earth. Another example of somewhat longer standing is the Yonaguni Monument.
Yonaguni is the south-westernmost part of Japan—the last of the Ryukyu Islands, about 125 kilometers east of Taiwan. 15,000 years ago it was part of a long peninsula stretching from the Chinese mainland through Taiwan and on as far as what is now the island of Amami. After a short water gap, the Osumi Islands were in turn attached to Kyushu. As the continental shelf in the region is shallow, the East China Sea was reduced a long thin bay separating the “Ryukyu Peninsula” from the mainland. China has been inhabited for more than a million years, and Japan for at least 35,000, so it’s very likely somebody lived here too.
It was thinking like this which got Aratake Kihachiro, a dive instructor on Yonaguni, calling for archaeological help after he encountered something odd just off the south coast of the island. The man who answered was Kimura Masaaki, a marine geologist and vulcanologist specializing in the Ryukyus. He proposed that what Aratake had discovered was a submerged megalithic site that puts the every other stone monument on Earth in the shade for sheer age.
The Yonaguni Monument is (to its supporters) something like a temple, built along the lines of a step pyramid, with a complex of some sort on its flat top. Twenty-five meters tall and fifty long, the top of the Monument is only five meters under the water. Surrounding the base of the monument is a jumbled array of stone blocks, some arranged in the classic “two uprights and a lintel” common to many megalithic sites.
A scale model of the Monument certainly looks like the messy arrangements of buildings in many ancient sites. Pictures and videos taken from various angles closer up look artificial too. Professor Kimura points to certain spots for more artistic work, like a turtle, and a partially completed face; those are perhaps less-convincing.
Most other archaeologists and geologists think the Monument is natural. The strongest evidence it’s unfashioned is that the monument resembles shore rocks being eroded at successively higher levels by a rising sea, (as seen here, and as compared to here onshore). Most photographs of the Monument show a smoother aspect, but this is an illusion: it’s covered in a thick coating of algae and coral life that’s evened out the bumps. Under the algae, the rock looks more natural. A further worry is that no-one has ever found any tool marks to suggest that the sandstone has been shaped; the Monument itself is almost entirely a single rock, rather than being formed from blocks placed on one another like other megalithic remains. The only items made out of loose blocks are the ones surrounding the Monument on the ocean floor surrounding it, almost as if they’ve fallen loose from the main structure.
That’s not an unreasonable stance given the Monument’s location. Even compared to hotspots like mainland Japan and Indonesia, Taiwan and the western Ryukyus are one of the most seismically active places in Asia. It’s particularly worth noting that the worst zone is in the ocean just to the west of Yonaguni Island. Within 100 kilometers of the monument there were several earthquakes larger than a 7.0 on the Richter Scale in the two decades leading up to Aratake’s discovery, and many smaller ones. All of the Monument’s strange shapes could well be the product of seismic activity knocking down something bigger and leaving behind the new-looking sharp edges. Dislodged blocks would fall to the ocean floor around the outcropping, sometimes piling on one another.
There’s also another thing to keep in mind when dealing with old relics from Japan. Japanese archaeology has developed an obsession with Japan’s earliest days; this is partly because the general public is extremely interested in their own origins. This makes successful archaeologists famous and respected to an extent rarely seen outside of Japan, and the temptation has been overwhelming to some. There have been cases of outright fraud like Fujimura Shinichi, and there’s a noticeable tendency among Japanese archaeologists to not contest claims of very old discoveries. Untangling this is further complicated by the fact that, in one particular area, Japan does have a good claim to unusual cultural precocity—the oldest known pottery is Japanese. It’s one of the few hallmarks of civilization not developed in Egypt or Mesopotamia first.
As it happens, there are worrying signs that the Monument is being pushed harder than the evidence can bear. For example, there have been attempts to link it to the Rosetta Stone of Okinawa. Even though there’s so little known about the stone (it was removed from its archaeological context before being brought to scientific attention, it’s never been dated, and it’s indecipherable) proponents of the Monument have been quick to claim both oddities for their conjectured early civilization. To some extent, this may be to cover for one of the most peculiar aspects of the Monument site: if it is a site, there’s only the megaliths there, and no smaller artifacts found to date. If that pattern holds, it would be unique. People are messy. They drop stuff and leave broken things behind, but there’s none of that here.
When it comes down to it, the argument that the Monument is artifical is a statistical one. There’s a large number of unusual rock formations in a concentrated location, and while similar things can be found elsewhere on and around Yonaguni, they’re much more scattered. As a result it’s not totally unreasonable to suspect human intervention, but it’s also the nature of randomness to throw up clusters of events that sometimes beggar belief. In the absence of other evidence at Yonaguni, the question becomes “how much is too much?” And any attempt at resolution is never going to convince anyone looking to bolster their own desires, be it a faith in extreme Japanese antiquity, a general disbelief in lost civilizations, or even a just a dive shop owner not unreasonably hoping for a killer tourist attraction.