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Archeology Shows Evidence Of Tuna Butchering 5,500 Years Ago Japan, May 23, 13

The “Manyoshu” (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), a poetry anthology compiled in the Nara Period (710-794), contains a poem by the statesman and poet Otomo no Yakamochi that poses the question, “Should I express my hidden feelings as clearly as a fire luring tuna at night?” At the time, tuna were hunted with spears.

The poet Yamabe no Akahito, meanwhile, wrote that catching tuna brought fishermen much excitement. Whether tuna were speared or angled, catching them on the small boats available in the Nara Period must have been an act of valiance.

There is, however, evidence that fishing tuna was common in the Japanese archipelago during the Jomon Period (about 10,000 to 300 B.C.), a time when fishing boats were even more basic. Massive volumes of tuna bones have been dug up from a shell mound dating back approximately 5,500 years, located on a hilly area in the Karakuwa district of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. Stoneware fragments -- apparently used to cut apart tuna some 2 meters in length -- were still stuck in some of the bones, which each measured several dozen centimeters.

This brings to mind the modern-day tuna “demolition” performances conducted at supermarkets as a marketing gimmick. Back in the Jomon Period, did men and women, both old and young, also gather around as one of their large catches was cut apart with stone tools? The artifacts found at the archeological sites include fishhooks made of bone. It’s likely that back then, too, people waited longingly for schools of tuna to swim up off the Sanriku coast in early summer.

Fast forward to early summer 2013. Just the other day, the fish market at Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, hauled in some 230 bluefin tuna that had been caught in fixed nets off the coast. It was the biggest catch in 20 years, and the Ofunato market, hard hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, saw its first boom since the disasters. Apparently, the tuna that had swum northwards had remained off the coast due to the southward advance of cold waters.

Life with the ocean has continued in the Sanriku region for ages. The 2011 disasters cruelly severed local life from this long history, and yet, we see today that lives have begun to move forward, thanks to the bountiful sea.