Ainu Abalone Rituals and Resource Utilization at the Hamanaka 2 Site

Ainu Currents Post 3
Ainu Abalone Rituals and Resource Utilization at the Hamanaka 2 Site

Recently, the 2023 Rebun Field School has sparked the attention of various news outlets across Japan interested in findings from the Ainu cultural layer at the Hamanaka 2 site. This year’s excavation continues to illuminate a distinctive facet of Ainu life from the Edo period to the beginning of the Meiji period. More specifically, an abalone shell cluster points to a unique ritual space deeply rooted in Ainu spirituality.

An initial stratigraphic analysis identified the abalone shell strata in the western part of the site in the 2016 survey. The layer is presumed to be from the Early Modern Edo period. Puncture marks on the shells, attributed to iron tools, coupled with accompanying artifacts such as coins, a makiri (Ainu single-blade knives), and sea animal bones with cut marks, point to subsistence refuse related to abalone fishing. The survey conducted in 2019 revealed the abalone shell feature with overlapping clusters, suggesting a deliberate pattern in their deposition.

While abalone was an important trading item, it is believed they took center stage in an Ainu “shell sending”, or ‘Iomante’, ceremony. This ritual involved sending the souls of the mollusks back to the land of the gods, an act intended to wish for the continued bounty of nature—a divine gift in the Ainu worldview. While the Ainu ‘bear sending’ ceremony is widely known, the newfound emphasis on abalone introduces a nuanced perspective on the Ainu’s intricate relationship with nature and the spiritual realm.

The distinctive characteristics of the abalone feature at the Hamanaka 2 Site set it apart from other processing sites distributed across the region. Adjacent sites along Funadomari Bay served as processing locations where the preparation of dried abalone occurred, with the intended destination being shipment to southern Japan and overseas markets. The remains at Hamanaka 2 reveal a lack of organized and intensive abalone shellfish harvesting and processing for commercial purposes. The scale of the abalone shells at the site suggests a context of private consumption, challenging prevailing narratives of extensive trade in abalone during this period.

Accompanying ironware and bone tools suggests a potential connection to ritual activities. Historically, the Ainu incorporated rituals and prayers associated with hunting and gathering food into their cultural practices. The presence of pronged spear marks on abalone shells near the Hamanaka 2 Site reinforces the possibility of ritual significance. Furthermore, the 2023 excavation uncovered an ornamental bone knife, exhibiting a remarkable likeness to a comparable artifact unearthed during a previous excavation.

The ongoing excavation highlights the complex interplay between spirituality, resource management, and cultural practices, providing a nuanced perspective on the Ainu people’s historical connections with their environment and the spiritual world.