Fact check: Image shows Tibetan nuns, not first African settlers to Japan

·3 min read

The claim: Image shows Japan's first inhabitants, who were African

A viral image being shared on Facebook claims to reveal Japan's earliest settlers.

"At about 35,000 b.c. a group of African/Nubian Chinese, later known as the Jomon, took this route and entered Japan," reads a Sept. 14 Facebook post.

The post says this group "became the first humans to ever inhabit the Japanese Islands" and were later followed by another group called the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group living in the Hokkaido region north of Japan.

Accompanying the post is a black-and-white image of a group of seated women with hair piled high on top of their heads.

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The post received over 40,000 interactions in about a month, including some incredulous comments.

"So this picture was taken 35,000 b.c. years ago?" asks one Facebook user.

This post is wrong at almost every turn. It whiffs on the timeline and nature of the migration, and the photo actually shows a group of Tibetan nuns.

Image from Tibet in 1903

The image can be linked back to an October 2010 NPR article on a London auction selling rare photos taken by British engineer John Claude White during a 1903 mission to Tibet.

David Parks, director of books, maps and manuscripts at Bonhams, an international auction house, told NPR the women depicted were Tibetan nuns.

"Their heads were shaved, apparently, and they wore these astonishing wigs on top," Park said.

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Africans weren't in Japan until the 16th century

The post also misses on the nature of the first Africans to come to Japan.

There is no archaeological or anthropological evidence for Africans during the country's Jomon period, contrary to the post's claim. But they did come to Japan some centuries later, Mark Hudson, an archaeologist with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, told USA TODAY.

"The first widely accepted Africans to reach Japan were slaves of Portuguese traders in the 16th century," Hudson said. "There are illustrations of such people from the time. It is quite possible that a few Africans reached Japan at an earlier stage, in the Middle Ages for example, but I am unaware of any direct evidence."

Hudson said Japan's first settlers likely arrived about 40,000 years ago. That's a group that originated in Africa 20,000 years prior but isn't considered African given the cultural and genetic changes in the intervening years.

"(These humans) didn't sail directly from Africa, they came by land through East Asia, though the last stage of the journey probably involved boats as Japan was a group of islands at that time," he wrote in an email.

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Hudson also said the Ainu are descendants of the Jomon, not a separate group that migrated, as the post claimed.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim an image shows Japan's first inhabitants, who were African. The image is from Tibet in 1903 and depicts Tibetan nuns. The first known Africans in Japan arrived in the 16th century as slaves of Portuguese traders.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Image shows Tibetan nuns, not African settlers to Japan

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