Borne on a Black Current

For thousands of years, the Pacific Ocean’s strong currents have swept shipwrecked Japanese sailors onto American shores

The Kuroshio, or "Black Current," is the Pacific Ocean's answer to the Atlantic's Gulf Stream. (© Alain Nogues / Corbis Sygma)

The seas are full of the cast-offs of humanity, from tub toys that have fallen off container ships to boats swept away in storms to bottled messages deliberately set adrift. That flotsam has given oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer insight into marine currents and how they have influenced the course of history. In this excerpt from his new book with writer Eric Scigliano, Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, the authors explain how a vicious current has swept sailors from Japan all the way to the Americas many times over many millennia.

Storied drifters float forever on the seas of legend and, lately, the Internet, whether or not they ever existed: the drift bottles Aristotle's protégé Theophrastus supposedly tracked across the Mediterranean, Queen Elizabeth I's [official message-in-a-bottle opener, the] “royal uncorker,” the ghost ship Octavius and the Sydney’s phantom lifebelt [which supposedly drifted from Australia all the way to France], Daisy Alexander's [$6-million] will in a bottle, and Clyde Pangborn’s ocean-hopping plane wheel.

These tales have spawned legal battles, comics-page yarns, and endless dinner-table diversion. Other transoceanic drifters have had much larger effects. Some scholars and aficionados believe that ancient drifts brought more than just timbers, nails, and other inanimate flotsam to the Americas. They maintain that sailors, fishermen, or passengers occasionally survived the drift and settled in the Americas, injecting new cultural and genetic elements into its native societies. Some, such as the British-born zoologist and amateur epigrapher Barry Fell, go further. They maintain that Old World peoples—the secretive, sea-mastering Phoenicians in particular—actually sailed to the New World to trade and left their shipwrecked traces off shores as widely scattered as Beverly, Massachusetts, and Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, the native peoples of the Americas did not leave records of any such early contacts, so the epigraphers rely on inscriptions and other artifacts—often controversial, if not outright fraudulent—supposedly left by the ancient visitors.

It’s harder to argue that Asian voyagers likewise visited or traded with America, because distances across the Pacific are so much wider. And no flood of Asian artifacts has been reported in the Americas to match the European claims. Nevertheless, another contingent of scholars makes a compelling case for repeated wash-ups by Japanese castaways over the past six thousand years—sometimes with transformative effect on the native cultures of the Americas. The doyen of this faction is Betty Meggers, an eminent anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who has advanced this inquiry for more than fifty years despite fierce resistance from her colleagues. In 1966, she published an authoritative account in Scientific American of how Japanese mariners drifted to Ecuador five thousand years ago. Since then she’s uncovered evidence—DNA, viruses that could only have originated in Japan, and pottery techniques found nowhere else—suggesting that ancient Japanese influence also reached Central America, California, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Well into her eighties, Betty would present her latest research on Japanese diffusion each year at the Pacific Pathways meetings in Sitka, [Alaska]. Before the sessions, we and the other Pathways participants would board a boat to remote beaches near Fred’s Creek, an hour from Sitka. Between exclamations of delight at the telltale flotsam we discovered, Betty would share more of her findings. She approached the problem as a literal jigsaw puzzle, comparing pottery shards unearthed around the Pacific. The patterns on multiple shards excavated at Valdivia, Ecuador, and on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, matched so well, she posited that a boatload of Japan’s indigenous Jomon people made the trip some sixty-three centuries ago. Other discoveries suggest that others first made landfall in California and San Jacinto, Colombia.

The impetus to this migration was one of the great cataclysms of humankind's time on earth. Few places are so prone to natural catastrophe as Japan, an island nation floating at the intersection of three tectonic plates, the Pacific, Eurasian, and Philippine. The slow but violent collision of these three plates produces spectacular earthquakes, tsunamis, and eruptions.

About sixty-three hundred years ago, a flyspeck island off southern Kyushu named Kikai exploded with a force that would dwarf all the more famous volcanoes that have since erupted around the world. Kikai weighed in at 7 on the standard volcanic explosivity index (VEI), which runs from 1 to 8, VEI 8 being reserved for the sort of mega-eruptions that cause ice ages and mass extinctions. It ejected twenty-four cubic miles of dirt, rock, and dust into the air, about nine times as much as Krakatoa in 1883, twenty-four times as much as Mount St. Helens in 1980, and forty times as much as the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The tsunamis triggered by Kikai obliterated coastal towns. The eruption’s spew was enough to blanket up to 18 million square miles of land and sea. Dust and ash several feet thick smothered the fertile soil, rendering southern Japan uninhabitable for two centuries. Unable to farm, the Jomon set out for other shores in what Betty Meggers calls “the Jomon Exodus.” And that was where a second mighty phenomenon came into play.

The Kuroshio (“Black Current,” named after the dark color it lends the horizon when viewed from the shore) is the Pacific Ocean’s answer to the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream. More than twenty-two hundred years ago the Chinese called the Kuroshio by the prescient name Wei-Lu, the current to “a world in the east from which no man has ever returned.” Surging up from Taiwan, fat with warm tropic water, it arcs past Japan and Southeast Alaska and down the northwest coast. At the same time, cool, powerful offshore winds, the equivalent of Atlantic America’s Arctic blasts, race down from Siberia, pushing boats and other flotsam out into the Kuroshio.

The fleeing Jomon were driven into the Kuroshio. So were fishermen blocked from returning home by the sea-blanketing pumice. The Black Current bore them toward America—surely not the first and far from the last unwitting emissaries to make that journey.


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