Fact check: Romans in Japan?

Okinawa is a Japanese island located in an archipelago located about halfway between the main islands of Japan and Taiwan. Recently, a few Roman coins have been unearthed there that date to the fourth century AD. It was of course hyped as “Romans in Japan”.

If these coins had been entered into the antiquities trade they would have been ignored, as few people would have believed where they were supposedly found. However, they have been excavated under “controlled circumstances”, i.e. as part of a professional dig. But how did these Roman coins end up on Okinawa?

Complications

There are two problems. The first concerns the type of coins: they are essentially nickles and dimes. If they had been gold coin, one could imagine an Indian, Thai, or Chinese person might have obtained it and traded it. (I imagine something similar might have happened, the other way round, to a rare piece of Chinese jade that I once saw in the archaeological museum of the Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora.) I’m having a hard time imagining mere copper coins being traded this way.

A second problem is the findspot: a castle (Katsuren) that was only in use during what we refer to as the Late Middle Ages. Archaeologists also discovered Ottoman coins of the seventeenth century there, and so we have a rather odd puzzle on our hands: Roman coins that date from before the castle had been built and Turkish coins that date after the castle had been abandoned. We don’t understand this at present, but one might imagine an eighteenth-century European merchant on his way to Japan who, intrigued by old coins that were being offered up for sale, bought some of the stuff and brought it along. It’s just as speculative as an Indian, Thai, or Chinese person who owned the coins and travelled around with them.

Our conclusion is that we simply don’t know what happened here. But importantly, the real news is that it’s taken seriously. Less than five years ago these finds would have been dismissed simply on the grounds that Roman finds didn’t, couldn’t exist in Japan. Of course, there are exceptions: they did discover a Roman glass dish, but that was considered valuable enough that it might have been traded as something exotic along the Silk Road. But a Roman nickle, no. That’s not something an ancient historian would waste a lot of his or her time on.

Revolution

Today, the find is being taken seriously – and that’s news. It’s the consequence of a revolution that the disciplines involved in the study of the ancient past are currently undergoing: the creation of a fourth “window” into the past. For a long time, we only based our knowledge of the past on the written texts, but two sources of information were added later: archaeology and ethnographic parallels. (The latter is largely used to check if a reconstruction based on texts or material culture is plausible.)

DNA evidence is a new, fourth source of information and an important conclusion based on DNA research is that human beings have been much more mobile than has long been assumed (see also Ancient History Magazine issue 5). For a long time, the general assumption has been that cultures change largely by adapting to local circumstances and adopting elements from neighbouring cultures. But now migration, the movement of peoples, is once again moving centre stage.

Furthermore, people appear to be much more closely related to each other than has long been assumed. This Dutch blogger, for example, assumed that his family was as Dutch as a windmill, only to discover he had an ancestor with genes of the Yakut, a Turkish-speaking population in Siberia. If you already thought that race is rather an impractical way to categorize people, you can be certain now.

I call this a revolution, because less than a quarter century ago such conclusions were unimaginable. I remember how one of my archaeology teachers, the unforgettable Simon Wynia, once began a class with the then-spectacular news that researchers had used DNA to determine whether bones had belonged to males or females, and that those new DNA identifications were preferable compared to educated guesswork that was used before. This research has developed rapidly over the course of the last few years.

The consequences

As I wrote, migration appears to have been much more common than was previously thought. If you are European or of European descent, you may well have genes that can be traced back to the earliest farmers from Turkey, as well as genes that accompanied the spread of Indo-European languages from the Ukraine. People in Antiquity were biologically more heterogenous than we hitherto assumed. In Vagnari, Italy, someone has been found with mitochondrial DNA that suggests an origin in the Far East. Perhaps someone from Xinjiang who crossed the Pamir and was captured by the Parthians and then sold to the Romans?

The point is that researchers no longer exclude the possibility of migration and trade across vast distances. It has became a permissable hypothesis. (Or to use jargon: it went from negative to positive heuristic.) This explains why these Roman coins on Okinawa are now being taken seriously, just like the remains of bones in London that appear to be East Asian.

And the coins don’t come completely as a surprise. We already knew that a Chinese chronicle described a delegation from the Roman Empire. Roman coins were also known from India. We also have a description of a strange animal that was killed in the Colosseum and that must almost certainly have been a Tasmanian tiger or Thyclacine, an animal that we know lived on the Indonesian island of Java in Roman times. There is a growing interest in Roman trade on the Indian Ocean, which may have been responsible – according to some – for a quarter to a third of the total Roman Imperial revenue.

I have my doubts regarding the last assertion, but that’s not important right now. We are experiencing a revolution: DNA research is able to cast a new light on the ancient world and previously unimaginable things, like Roman coins in Japan and Chinese bones in London, become possible. Research into the past hasn’t been this exciting for ages.

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