GSI Member Professor Jordan’s Co-authored Research Paper on Prehistoric Natural Disaster in Japan Wins the Ben Cullen Prize 2024

A research paper titled ‘Disaster, survival and recovery: the resettlement of Tanegashima Island following the Kikai-Akahoya ‘super-eruption’, 7.3ka cal BP’ co-written by Hokkaido University GSI’s Professor Peter Jordan has been awarded the prestigious Ben Cullen Prize 2024 for making an “outstanding contribution” to World Archaeology. The wider research project investigates the extent to which past societies coped with massive shocks and sudden environmental catastrophes. The prize-winning paper examines the social and environmental impacts and legacies of the largest volcanic eruption ever to impact global humanity in the last 30,000 years.

This catastrophe was the Kikai-Akahoya (K-Ah) “super-eruption” which destroyed much of East Asia around 7,300 years ago. Traditionally this event has been viewed as an “apocalyptic” moment which swept away all life and left southern Japan empty and desolate for many hundreds of years, to the extent that it never fully recovered. Over the last three years, the team has been piecing together a much more nuanced story by carefully studying sites, landscapes and the material remains left behind by ancient communities located across the different disaster-impact zones.


Location map (from Open Access published article) showing epicentre and disaster impact zones (Image: Junzo Uchiyama)

What emerges is a very different, and much more “human” and dynamic narrative: small groups of people somehow survived, even quite close to the epicentre; they made choices, somehow clung on, and learned to live in the new conditions, eventually enabling them to rebuild their social networks and communities.

Peter Jordan, Professor of Archaeology at GSI Hokkaido University, designed and leads the research:

“We are surprised, thrilled, and of course deeply honoured to be awarded this international prize. This is very much a team effort, bringing together researchers and institutions from across Sweden and Japan. In fact, the paper is our project’s first major research output – it is very much a proof-of-concept study and explores some new ideas we were working on.”    

The massive Kikai-Akahoya super eruption exploded without warning in the East China Sea just off the southwest coast of Kyushu in Japan, forming a submerged caldera 20km in diameter. It triggered major earthquakes and tsunamis, and produced fast-moving currents of super-heated clouds of mixture of volcanic gas and materials (pyrocrastic flows). These clouds swept in from the ocean and over the inhabited landscapes, burning off all vegetation roughly within 100km from the epicentre. Millions of tons of ash were thrown up into the atmosphere and rained down over 2 million, smothering everything in dusty ash fields, poisoning rivers and blocking out the sun in a kind of “nuclear winter”. To put this event in perspective, it was about 160 times bigger than the 2022 Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai event, 50 times bigger than the 79AD Mt Vesuvius eruption, which destroyed Pompeii, and 30 times bigger than the 1991 Mt Pinatubo eruption, which altered the global climate.

As Professor Junzo Uchiyama, first author of the award-winning paper, explains:

“We wanted to get away from the assumption that this massive prehistoric catastrophe had extinguished all life; we suspected that things were more complicated, with small pockets of survival, and perhaps some ecosystems more resilient and able to bounce back faster than others – this is very much the picture we are seeing now”.

Junzo Uchiyama also stresses that it took many years on painstaking work by co-author and key project member Professor Mitsuhiro Kuwahata of Kyushu University to demonstrate that certain distinctive pottery traditions had continued right through the “disaster layers” of some archaeological sites. In other words, local people were making a very special kind of clay cooking pot, and passing the skills and values on to the next generation – this core tradition survives the disaster and continues on the other side, so for the first time we know that at least some people survived: in the weeks, months and years after the catastrophe they carried on with daily existence, and eventually forged new networks and communities in the devastated wastelands. As Professor Kuwahata explains:

“We know there was massive loss of life, because evidence of human settlement drops away alarmingly and many large sites are abandoned under the ash; at the same time, some people did survive as we see direct continuity in some of their most iconic cultural traditions”.


Exposing the “disaster-scape” in Kyushu. The yellow band in the soil is the “disaster layer” of compacted ash. The layer was found during the excavation of the Aihara No1 site, 150km to the north of the K-Ah epicentre (September 2020). It is about 70cm thick and would have been about 1.5 to 2.0 meters meters when the event first happened. (Photo: Junzo Uchiyama)

Alas, the award-winning paper covers some of the more tragic aspects of the catastrophe: the pilot-research focuses on the events that played out on the remote offshore Tanegashima Island, which is located very close to the super eruption’s epicentre. The hot ash clouds surged in and swept away the dense and productive forests, all people, and also all animal life and plants and vegetation – here there were no survivors. After this catastrophic impact, the island became a dusty wasteland. Some centuries later, survivors from the main island of Kyushu sailed back to Tanegashima Island and established new settlements. One of the main goals of the award-winning paper is to understand how people lived before the catastrophe, and the steps they took to make life possible again in the badly damaged ecosystems when they eventually returned to Tanegashima Island several hundred years later.

The paper shows that just prior to the disaster, the Jōmon foragers (hunting, fishing and gathering peoples) of prehistoric Japan who occupied the island lived on a broad subsistence base, including hunting, fishing and the harvesting of wild tree nuts, making use of a very wide variety of ecological niches that the island had to offer. When people returned, this was still a damaged ecosystem – this made new subsistence strategies essential there was no game animals and only limited plant foods available, the new settlers focused on the shoreline, especially estuaries, and exploited different foods like shellfish and kudzu. Despite this, population levels remained very low for two more millennia. Overall, the paper looks at this long post-disaster recovery process and questions the simplistic framing of ‘resilience’ as a process of rebounding, unchanged, to a previous state; instead, these Jōmon communities were constantly changing and adapting, and constantly developing new ways of life, long before the eruption and also long after.

Importantly, the project is now focusing research efforts on other “disaster impact zones” where the team knows that at least some prehistoric people did survive. The Nordic-Japan research team is using a wide array of innovative new scientific methods, which enables them to understand whether there were major shifts in the diet, health and mobility of people and cornerstone animals like sika deer and wild boar upon which they relied; they will also look at the genetic lieanes to explore questions like population replacement versus population continuity across different species. One key method involves extracting ancient food remains from the ancient clay cooking pots, enabling them to looking at how human culinary traditions respond to the aftermath of sudden environmental catastrophes. Professor Sven Isaksson, Stockholm University, is also a qualified Survival Instructor, and explains:

“What really fascinates me is what the survivors were eating in the weeks, months and years after this apocalyptic event had likely destroyed all their familiar food sources; I see them gathering around hearths, cooking and sharing food that they somehow managed to scavenge from the dusty wastelands. Eventually, the decimated communities could persist and rebuild”

In the next few months the research team will start publishing more of these intriguing results in the next set of research papers. The group also has a formal name – CALDERA a new Nordic-Japan research programme in “Disaster Studies”. The team is also growing thanks to new research funds from the Swedish Research Council (VR), and the team are collaborating with two VR Swedish National Research Structures, “ArchLab”, which support the lab-based research, and also “Infravis”, which is supporting the CALDERA team to build 3D digital simulations of the catastrophic event and its aftermath to understand environmental impacts and legacies, and how these shaped human survival chances and also later social and economic options.

The GSI team are also looking to develop further case-studies in Hokkaido, which is also an area of high volcanic activity, with different eruptions and disasters severely impacting ancient peoples and cultures right through to recent historic times. Peter Jordan envisages GSI and CALDERA engaging closely with local communities, institutions and government agencies in Hokkaido where volcanic geohazards remain a daily existential threat. The aim is to understand what strengthened societal resilience to survive and recover from past disasters and catastrophes, but also to understand the extent did these kinds of sudden shocks pushed past societies and cultures down other historical pathways. As Peter Jordan reflects:

“We have come a long way in the last few months and this prize from our global discipline’s most important journal (Antiquity) gives us a major boost and lots of encouragement that we are doing some original and interesting work; that said, I think that we still have a long way to go with this overall research theme, and that some of the most important and indeed most societally-relevant insights are yet to emerge – watch this space!”

Interestingly, the origins of the CALDERA project are also rooted in a period of global crisis and deep uncertainity, which started just after his JSPS Visiting Professorship at Hokkaido University (2019-2020). Peter Jordan explains that “we got the core idea right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic”. As he describes, all the international borders were closed, including Japan’s, for two years, and so we ended up having a lot of online meetings with our friends and colleagues, both for scientific tasks but also for human social purposes. A lot of us were stuck working from home back then, and we could not leave the house, or travel at all. We had some old results from a completed project on the world’s oldest pottery, which is found in Japan, and we were just trying to figure out a way to write them up into an interesting narrative. The data, which were ancient food remains extracted from pottery sherds, each taken from different levels in an archaeological site, just showed that people on Tanegashima Island were using their clay pots to cook fish and other aquatic resources over several thousand years – hardly a remarkable story. The archaeological excavations had been completed some years before, so we were working with collections housed in museums and store houses, not the original site contexts. At some point, looking back at information on the site’s stratigraphy, we suddenly realised that there was a vivid 30cm-thick orange band in the middle layer of the archaeological site – this was the ash layer of the volcanic disaster 7,300 years ago – we had sampled right through a disaster horizon! As soon as we realised this, our entire research question suddenly pivoted towards issues of disaster and local survival: we initially thought about the local survivors, and how they had been cooking fish stews in the wastelands of Tanegashima Island. It quickly became clear that there were no survivors here, so we started to think through the wider regional process of disaster, survival and recovery, and how this process must have played out across different impact zones. In fact, people had survived, but not here, but elsewhere, and these communities eventually regrouped and sailed back out and resettled Tanegashima Island and other devastated areas.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, and when Japan was locked down for two years, we were still able to route a lot of research money out to our colleagues, who could do research, local networking and fieldwork until things improved. Importantly, all the online discussions suddenly gave birth to an entire project design as well as this first award-winning paper – “in a sense”, says Peter, “we also stuck together, kept our social and human networks going, and made it through a difficult time by finding new ways to work together and keep each other engaged and motivated”. Since the end of the pandemic, the research has proceeded apace and also forms part of GSI’s long-term developmental plans at Hokkaido University.

Read the prize-winning research FREE in Antiquity:



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Professor Peter D. Jordan
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