By Bruno J. Mittler and Judy K. Pruden.


A paper read at the Sixteenth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures and Allied Fields, held at Brigham Young University on October 22, 1966.



One of the unsolved questions in New World archaeology is that of the origin of the ancient civilizations of the New World. Among the numerous existing theories, ranging from the Bering Strait theory to that of the ancient civilized peoples of the New World being remnants of the sunken continent Atlantis, the possibility of transpacific contact in pre-Columbian times—and whether or not the ancient civilizations of the Old World significantly influenced the origin and development of those in the Americas—is one of the most challenging questions facing New World archaeologists today (cf. Eckholm, p. 489).


The intent of this paper is to discuss recent developments in regard to the possibility of transpacific contact in pre-Columbian times. For the sake of convenience, this paper is divided into two parts. Part one deals with the problem of ancient transpacific movements. Part two discusses archaeological findings of ancient Old World traits in the New World.




Transpacific movement is the displacement—either intentional or accidental—of people across the Pacific Ocean. Our central purpose is to discuss the possibility of evidence for a transpacific movement of some ancient Japanese fishing people of the coast of Japan to the coast of Ecuador.




Two major currents circulate along the coast of Japan. They are the Oyashio and the Kurshio Currents (see Fig. 1). The Oyashio is a northern cold-water current which circulates along the Kurile Islands and the east coast of the Kamchatha peninsula. The Kurshio, also known as the Japanese Current, forms part of the general circulatory system of the North Pacific Ocean. It begins as a branch of the North Equatorial Current that is deflected northward off the east coast of Asia and flows northeastward to 45 degrees north latitude where it turns eastward across the Pacific Ocean and loses its identity in an easterly flowing drift current (Schureman, p. 9). This is the same current which in recent times has carried Japanese junks to the Puget Sound area of North America (Forde, p. 57).


As the Kurshio turns into a drift current, it gives rise to the California Current (Schureman, p. 4). The California Current flows along the west coast of North America, expanding gradually as it runs southward. On approaching 20 degrees north parallel, the current is deflected to the west, and south of this parallel it turns into the westward stream of the North Equatorial Current (Muromstev, p. 276). At this same point where the California Current changes direction, another current arises and flows south toward the Ecuadorian coast (see also Estrada-Meggers-Evans, p. 373).


In other words a vessel, if picked up by the Kurshio Current, would drift across the Pacific and southward along the North American coast. It then could be picked up by this south-flowing current and eventually could drift to the coast of Ecuador.


Heyerdahl states that the Kurshio Current is the only natural access to the Americas on the Pacific side. This current was used in early Hispanic times to take Spanish ships from the Philippines to Mexico (Heyerdahl, p. 487).


There is another current which flows from west to east in the Pacific Ocean. This is the Equatorial Countercurrent. It flows across the Pacific to the coast of South America. In the area of the Ecuadorian coast, its greater part swings south and turns into the South Equatorial Current (Muromstev, p. 268). However, the Equatorial Countercurrent is nothing more than an interrupted series of up swellings and of scant use to transpacific voyagers (Heyerdahl, p. 487).


The prehistoric Jomon people of Japan were deep-sea fishermen. Evidence of certain deep-sea marine life in their shell middens dictates their knowledge of deep-sea fishing technology (Kidder, p. 57).


With the above in mind, it is then possible to postulate that during one of these deep-sea fishing voyages a storm arose and drove the Jomon fishermen farther out to sea into the Kurshio Current. Due to meager navigational equipment, it would have been difficult to find their way back to their homeland (Sharp, p. 38). If this was the case, the vessel or vessels would have probably been deposited on the coast of North or South America.


An argument against the above hypothesis is that although the vessel may have made it to the shore of Ecuador, it is improbable that Jomon fishermen could have survived such a long, unintentional voyage. Groot has suggested the possibility that Jomon people were blown off course by gales to the area of Melanesia. Pottery of Middle Jomon type has been found among the Papuan-speaking people living there. The distance between Japan and the Melanesian Islands is 2500 miles. Being able to survive a journey of this length would indicate that the Jomon people were capable of surviving on ocean products while on long voyages. If this was the case then it is not improbable that these people could have survived a longer voyage from Asia to America.




Archaeological excavations which began on the northern coast of the Guayas province of Ecuador in 1956, have revealed the presence on that coast of a ceramic complex showing Old World characteristics. The pottery is dated by the radiocarbon method to be 4450 plus or minus 200 years old, making it one of the earliest ceramic manifestations in the New World (Meggers-Evans-Estrada, p. 372). It was found with the food refuse of a people with a shellfish-gathering economy.


The introduction of a technically advanced pottery type into this pre-agricultural and pine-ceramic setting brought pottery manufacturing to Ecuador’s early inhabitants, and eventually resulted in the “Valdivia” phase of the “Early Formative” (earliest farming) period of coastal Ecuador.


After careful examination of the Valdivia ceramic complex, it was suggested by Meggers and Evans that the pottery had its origin in the Old World, specifically Japan! This conclusion was based upon the great similarity of the pottery of Period A of the Valdivia phase, radiocarbon dated c. 3000-2300 BC, to the pottery of the prehistoric Jomon culture of Japan, a phase of which has been dated to the same time.


Types of pottery compared show little difference in the style of traits. Both the Valdivia and Jomon ware show incision, utilizing the “dog bone” motif. Vessel rims are nearly identical in the application of incision with parallel lines and a zigzag design on the neck. Multiple-edged tools which were alternately dragged and jabbed were commonly used to obtain a unique decoration. Among others, the use of fingers to form a groove was employed, as well as the use of a tool which left fine lines at the bottom of each incision. Other common techniques used were:  polished red slip, folded-over finger-pressed rims, castellated rims, and small tetrapod feet.


In spite of these similarities, it must be kept in mind that differences between the two complexes exist; but even when this is taken into consideration, they still remain remarkably similar.


Two explanations can account for the existence of similar culture traits in widely separate parts of the world. One is convergence, a process by which traits which were initially different come to resemble one another independently—in other words, independent innovation. The second is diffusion, also referred to as cultural borrowing, the process by which a trait or complex of traits is passed from a donor culture to a recipient one (Meggers-Evans, p. 28). In such a case, however, the trait or traits in question must always be older in the donor culture than in the recipient one, or at least as old. This criterion is successfully met by the Jomon and Valdivia ceramic complexes, and diffusion or borrowing would be an acceptable explanation for the appearance of Jomon-like ceramic traits in the New World.


“Transpacific migration” suggests an intentional movement of many people across the Pacific Ocean. This conclusion is not applicable to the Valdivia case, however. It should be remembered that had a large group of Jomon fishermen of Japan crossed the Pacific and made contact with the prehistoric inhabitants of Ecuador, the Jomon influence upon them would have prevailed over a longer time, as well as resulted in a noticeable change in their economic pattern.


Consequently it is argued instead, by Meggers and Evans, that the apparent Jomon influence on coastal Ecuador should not be considered the result of a transpacific migration, but rather be labeled an accidental “cultural misplacement” or “transpacific drift”—that the Jomon fishermen who apparently reached the coast of Ecuador were merely a small group of men from a few families, who through bad weather conditions, perhaps, were thrown off course and carried involuntarily across the Pacific by the Kurshio current and thence by the succeeding currents to Ecuador.


If one accepts this reconstruction and that prehistoric Japanese influence on coastal Ecuador was merely accidental instead of intentional, then the question remains as to whether or not this contact, and others which may have followed, resulted in the introduction of different technologies and art styles as well as patterns of behavior, and whether or not they significantly modified the direction of native cultural development in the New World (Meggers and Evans, p. 31).


Not so long ago, nearly all specialists in New World archaeology accepted the view that ancient civilizations followed a parallel but nevertheless independent direction of development in the two hemispheres.


Until it can be demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the traits of the ancient American civilizations had a native antecedent, or else in some cases were transplants from the Old World culture stream (as the Valdivia pottery seems to have been), no final answer can be given to the question of transoceanic contacts, and the problem of the origin of the ancient civilizations of the New World will remain unsolved.




Eckholm, Gordon F.

1964 “Transpacific Contacts,” Prehistoric Man in the New World, ed. by Jesse D. Jennings and Edward Norbeck. University of Chica­go Press, Chicago.

Estrada, Emilio, Betty J. Meggers and Clifford Evans

1962 “Possible Transpacific Contact on the Coast of Ecuador,” Science, Vol. 135 (February), p. 372.

Estrada, Emilio and Clifford Evans

1963 “Cultural Development in Ecuador,” Abor­iginal Development in Latin America: An Interpretative Review, ed. by Betty J. Meg-gems and Clifford Evans. Smithsonian Mis­cellaneous Collection, Vol. 146, No. 1, Washington, D.C.

Fomin, L. M.

1964 The Dynamic Method in Oceanography. Elsevier Company, Amsterdam. Vol. 2.

Forde, Daryll C.

1927 Ancient Mariners. Gerald Howe Ltd., Lon­don.

Groot, Gerald J.

1961 The Prehistory of Japan. Columbia Univer­sity Press, New York.

Hyerdahl, Thor

1963 “Feasible Ocean Routes to and from the Americas in Pre-Columbian Time,” Amencan Antiquity, Vol. 28, No. 4. Salt Lake City.

Kidder, J. E., Jr.

1959 Japan. Praeger Company, New York.

Meggers, Betty J., Clifford Evans and Emilio Estrada

1965 Early Formative Period of Coastal Ecua­dor. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthr­opology, Washington, D.C. Vol. 1.

Meggers, Betty J. and Clifford Evans

1966 “A Transpacific Contact in 3000 BC,” Scientific American, Vol. 214, No. 1, pp. 28-3 5.

Muromstev, A. M.

1963 The Principal Hydrological Features of the Pacific Ocean. S. Monson Company, Jeru­salem.

Schureman, Paul.

1949 Tide and Current Glossary. U. S. Depart­ment of Commerce; Coast and Geodetic Survey, Special Publication, No. 228. Washington, D.C.

Sharp, Andrew

1956 Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific. Penguin Book, Baltimore.