Archeology: With A Wave Of God's Hand

Shinichi Fujimura once boasted that he could "see 500,000-year-old landscapes." An amateur Japanese paleontologist with an uncanny knack for finding buried relics, he was rumored to have supernatural powers, and colleagues gave him the nickname "God's Hand." For 20 years Fujimura's discoveries illuminated Japanese prehistory; he unearthed evidence of ancient settlements at some 42 sites across the country, and, based largely on his work, paleontologists theorized the existence of a primitive human ancestor that had migrated across a land bridge from continental Asia as early as 1.2 million years ago. "It seemed that the most advanced people in the world at the time were in Japan," says Charles T. Keally, an American archeologist at Sophia University in Tokyo. "They were rewriting the story of human evolution."

Now Japanese scientists will have to rewrite that epic narrative. Over the past year Fujimura's dramatic rendition of primitive man's arrival in Japan has been exposed as fiction. Last October journalists from the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper covertly filmed him planting stone implements at a dig 350km northeast of Tokyo. When confronted, he initially confessed to faking just two finds. Yet recently, as experts reviewed his major discoveries, Fujimura has admitted to fabricating everything. Last week scholars conferred in Saitama prefecture to analyze his numerous local excavations. Their conclusion: no stone implements found in the area are of Early Paleolithic vintage. "This is the invention of modern man," says Dr. Toshiki Takeoka, an archeologist at Kyoritsu Women's University in Tokyo. "The credibility of Japanese archeology has been ruined by this incident."

Fujimura's hoax ranks among the great deceptions in modern paleontology. Like Piltdown man, the supposed "missing link" fabricated by amateur archeologist Charles Dawson in 1912 to prove that hominids evolved outside Africa, his finds challenged conventional wisdom on the dispersal of primitive humans. Supported by some of Japan's most prominent anthropologists, Fujimura claimed to have found evidence of shelters, delicate stone tools and a cache of colored stones arranged neatly in a pit and dating back some 700,000 years. The finds suggested a branch of primitive man in Japan that was far more advanced than any previously discovered. The ritual system implied by the artifacts, for example, does not appear elsewhere in the archeological record until humans begin burying their dead at about 60,000 B.C. "It indicated faculties way ahead of what we thought humans were doing at the time," says Keally.

The enormity of the discoveries should have begged intense scrutiny. Yet in Japan, where cordiality holds sway in intellectual circles, skepticism about Early Paleolithic Age settlements was muted despite major flaws in Fujimura's evidence. In 1985, for example, two scholars claimed that the relics from one site were dated based on incorrect interpretations of local geology. Their criticism was ignored. One of the scholars, Keally, remembers being confronted by one of Japan's most prominent archeologists, who told him to "shut up" about his doubts. In 1997 editors at the journal Paleolithic Archaeology made Takeoka tone down a paper questioning Fujimura's professionalism and claims to possess "supernatural powers." The published version said Fujimura's stone artifacts dated only to the Jomon era (13,000-300 B.C.) and hinted at fraud by noting his omnipresence at virtually every Early Paleolithic discovery. In frustration, Takeoka says, he encouraged the Mainichi journalists to stake out a dig and trap Fujimura red-handed. Confronted with tape showing him nonchalantly burying stones at the site, Fujimura claimed he was "possessed by an evil spirit."

According to former colleagues, the humiliation of the exposes has triggered an emotional breakdown in the scientist, who has since been hospitalized. A Sendai native, Fujimura began his career working excavation sites in the mid-1970s and later won acclaim for finding stone implements where other researchers had turned up nothing. (Suspiciously, his finds included tools but no signs of fire or animal remains, in sharp contrast to other sites of human habitation.) The Japanese Archaeology Association welcomed him to its ranks in 1984, a rare honor for a high-school graduate. He was expelled late last year.

Textbook editors who once celebrated Early Paleolithic discoveries in lessons on Japanese prehistory must now remove passages suggesting that Homo erectus ever set foot on the islands. The new texts will convey the conventional wisdom that Fujimura so nearly toppled: that the first human inhabitants arrived in Japan about 35,000 years ago from Korea. Unmoved, one might add, by God's hand.