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Searching for the first Koreans

A UH-led team mounts the most extensive survey to date to locate the earliest inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula

No one knows when the first humans arrived on the Korean Peninsula. Christopher Bae aims to find out. He received a five-year $1.2 million research grant from the Academy of Korean Studies in Seoul to mount a comprehensive quest to locate and document the peninsula’s first hominin arrivals. The project will use a wide variety of research techniques including analyses of recovered bones and stones, chronometric fossil dating, isotope analyses for reconstructions of the paleoenvironment and diet, and DNA analysis.

The origin of the Korean peoples is one of the great unsolved mysteries of Asian prehistoric research. Researchers have worked extensively in China and Japan to trace hominin occupations and have found some evidence of occupation in China dating back 2 million years. Because the Korean Peninsula was never physically separated from China, Bae believes the first Koreans may have settled as early as 500,000 to one million years ago.

Following up on a survey of dozens of cave localities in the remote mountains of the eastern and southern part of the Korean Peninsula, this coming summer Bae and his team will peel back history by excavating promising sites in search of Pleistocene (~2.6 million years ago to ~10,000 years ago) vertebrate fossils (including hominin fossils), archaeological remains, and materials that can be used for dating and paleoenvironmental reconstructions. Specialists in paleoanthropology, archaeology, biology, geochemistry, genetics, and other areas will all participate in the project, including scientists from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the John A. Burns School of Medicine as well as the U.S. Army’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. Bae will also bring over undergraduates and graduate students to participate.

The team will search for bones, teeth, artifacts, and speleothems (mineral deposits in caves that can be used for dating and paleoenvironmental reconstructions). To identify promising excavation sites, Bae, his colleague Kidong Bae, and their researchers interviewed local villagers and combed local lore for clues to the locations of caves hominins likely lived in. “Because of the heavy overgrowth during the summers, some of these locations could not be located even with the GPS coordinates,” says Bae.

The project is focusing on caves in the limestone mountainous regions because bones and other evidence of habitation preserve in these dry, temperature stable environs far better than in open air sites where they may be affected by the acidic soil conditions prevalent in South Korea. Besides the ultimate goal of reconstructing the nature of hominin migrations into the Korean Peninsula, Bae hopes to be able to more closely evaluate the Korean hominin fossils and develop a better understanding of how they relate to hominins from areas like China, Japan, and Siberia.

About the Researcher
Christopher Bae, who is Korean-American, has studied aspects of Korean prehistory for most of his professional career including research into the nature of the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and the presence of bifacially worked implements (i.e., handaxes) at such important sites like Chongokni He is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UH Mānoa.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 print edition of Kaunānā.