Underworld

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Chapter Twenty-Seven
Confronting Yonaguni

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“The question was, or is still, is it and, if yes, to what extent is it made by man or overworked by man? This is the question.”
Dr Wolf Wichmann, geologist, Yonaguni, March 2001

I was in Tokyo in 1996 when the photojournalist Ken Shindo showed me the first images I had ever seen of an awe-inspiring terraced structure, apparently a man-made monument of some kind, lying at depths of up to 30 metres off the Japanese island of Yonaguni at the remote south-west end of the Ryukyu archipelago.

This was the moment, if there ever was just one moment, when the “Underworld” quest began for me and when much that I had learnt in previous years in many different countries began to swing sharply into focus and make sense. I felt an immediate compulsion to explore the beautiful and mysterious structure that beckoned so alluringly from the photographs. And I realised that it would rewrite prehistory if it could indeed be proved to be man-made.

I described in Chapter One how Santha and I learned to dive, and the remarkable synchronicities and good fortune that brought us to Yonaguni in March 1997 to begin a systematic programme of underwater photography and research there that was to continue until mid-2001. I also described some of the other rock-hewn underwater structures that we dived at with our Japanese colleagues at other locations in the Ryukyus – notably at Kerama, Aguni and Chatan at the northern end of the archipelago.

The most complex and intractable problem shared by all of these otherwise very different structures is also the simplest and most obvious question that anyone might wish to ask about them: were they shaped and carved by human hands or could they have ended up looking the way they do as a result of natural weathering and the erosive weapons of the sea?

Though they have an important role to play, geologists are not the only people qualified to decide the answer to such a question. Likewise, though they too are indispensable, archaeologists cannot be the final arbiters. On the contrary, if ever a multi-disciplinary approach was called for then it is here!

For as I’ve tried to show in the previous chapters Japan confronts us with a prehistoric cultural and mythological context into which the rock-hewn structures fit snugly like the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This context includes a clear tradition of unknown antiquity -- still manifest in the present day – in which huge rocks are carved and rearranged amidst sacred natural landscapes. Since this is precisely the puzzling and ambiguous aspect – part natural and part man-made – of the underwater structures scattered around the Ryukyu archipelago, it is foolish and irresponsible to ignore the possibility of a connection.

Yet it is equally foolish and irresponsible to ignore what geology and archaeology have to say on the matter.

So it is time, I think, to provide a thorough reckoning.

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