Smithsonian - National Museum of Natural Historyheader spaceAinu

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

Faces of Ainu
Room 1 Overview

Ainu means "human" - Ainu means "us"; the Ainu of northern Japan call themselves by a name that asserts their identity. An intensely spiritual culture, the Ainu believe that living and non-living things are kamuy (gods visiting the earthly world.) Their culture has roots stretching back more than ten thousand years. Recent DNA research shows that they are descended from the ancient Jomon people of Japan. Physically, the Ainu differed from Japanese and other nearby Asian peoples in language and especially in appearance; their eyes were deep-set, their bodies muscular and hairy. Over the centuries, the Ainu have maintained their sense of what being Ainu means through beautiful craftsmanship, a rich oral tradition, and complex rituals. This exhibit is the first to celebrate both the contemporary expression of Ainu ethnicity and the experiences of the Ainu past.

Room 1 introduction credits:

Abashiri Ainu
Romyn Hitchcock (1888)
National Anthropological Archives NAA 98-10383

Hunter in Mountain Clothes
National Park Service, Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow National Historic Site, Cambridge, Mass.

Ainu Woman of Urap
Romyn Hitchcock (1888)
Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives

Ainu Man of Urap
Romyn Hitchcock (1888)
Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives

Ritual use of the ikupasuy
Fosco Maraini

Ceramic Figurine (replica), Final Jomon
Motowanishi site, Muroran, Hokkaido
The Historical Museum of Hokkaido

Wealthy Sakhalin Ainu
photograph by Bronislaw Pilsudski about 1905
Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives NAA 47368

(3) Object QTVR w/captions

1. Bear Effigy Vessel - 360 (replica)
Effigies of animals have been found in many Okhotsk sites, whose pithouses sometimes have ritual altars. This bear head (ca A.D. 800) was carved on a large wooden bowl that was carbonized in a house fire; it was recovered from the Matsunorikawa Kitagishi site, Rausu, Hokkaido. The presence of a design resembling the Ainu itokpa (ancestral mark) of repun-kor-kamuy, the killer whale and god of the sea, suggests the vessel had a ceremonial function. Similar effigy vessels (without itokpa) were used by Northwest Coast Indians.

Matsunorikawa Kitagishi site, Rausu, Hokkaido
Rausu Town Board of Education

2. Duck Effigy Flute (replica)
This ceramic figurine was found at Bibi-4 site, Chitose, Hokkaido, and dates from the Final Jomon period (1,000 B.C.). Most Japanese archaeologists interpret this ceramic effigy as a duck in flight, but it is clearly not exactly a duck but rather some kind of transformational spirit (duck/sea otter?) whose form is not fixed in nature. Nor is its function understood; holes in its bottom, chest, and lower body make it useless as a normal vessel, but it could have been used as a kind of flute. It is covered with Jomon designs and has red ocher pigment around the eyes, mouth and vessel openings. Designs like these are still used in Ainu art today.

Japanese National Important Cultural Property
Mamachi site, col. 1986
Chitose, Hokkaido
The Historical Museum of Hokkaido

3. Inaw
Inaw are sacred shaved sticks that symbolize birds, which accompany a man's prayers to the god world. Willow branches were gathered a week (and sometimes as early as a month) before a ceremony; the bark was then peeled and the wood was dried for several days. The sticks were carved into a wide variety of beautiful shapes, each intended for a specific god or function.

This Inaw was carved specifically for the Ainu exhibit at the Smithsonian by Masahiro Nomoto.

(3) Objects w/captions - Stills

1. Killer Whale Effigy (replica), Middle Jomon The Ainu know the killer whale (orca) as the god of the sea (repun-kamuy). In the past orcas were both feared and revered as the most powerful predators in the ocean. Although they endangered fishermen, they also drove whales ashore into human hands. This sculpture was probably used for rituals involving this animal; it dates from the Middle Jomon period (3,000-2,000 B.C.) and was found at the Kikyo-2 site. Hakodate, Hokkaido. Effigies of bear, deer, and turtles also date to this period.

Kikyo-2 site, Hakodate, Hokkaido
Hokkaido Archaeological and Cultural Remains Investigation
Center, Sapporo, Hokkaido

2. Ceramic Figurine (Final Jomon)
Jomon ceramic figurines reveal ethnographic information through hairstyles, clothing, and garment designs. This figurine (Final Jomon, 700-400 B.C.) from the Motowanishi site, Muroran, Hokkaido, establishes that Jomon clothing utilized spiral-band ornamentation at the base and shoulders of their garments similar to the morew patterns produced by Ainu seamstresses. Such figurines were probably used for protection against illness, infertility, and the dangers of childbirth.

The Historical Museum of Hokkaido

3. Bone Spoons (replicas), Epi-Jomon
These spoons, from the Epi-Jomon Esan site, are of bone and one has a killer whale on its handle; they date from ca. A.D. 1. They were probably used in animal-related rituals. Siberian peoples used similar effigy spoons to feed spirits until modern times. Recently, spoons like these dated to 4,500-5,000 years ago have been found in British Columbia, Canada.

Esan site, Hokkaido
The Historical Museum of Hokkaido

(3) Video

1. Commentary on Ainu Origins by Curator William Fitzhugh

"This room is called "Faces of the Ainu" and it deals with the diversity of Ainu people. When Japan opened to the west in the 1860s Westerners were really surprised to discover people in Hokkaido among the Ainu culture who looked very much like Caucasians. The question of the origins of the Ainu, the biological origins of the Ainu is still very much up in the air. For a long time it's been thought that they were related to Caucasians because they looked very unlike the Mongoloid peoples. Today DNA testing has been done and despite some evidence that there is some sort of non-Mongoloid features in the Ainu, in another words perhaps some Caucasian or central Asian, there still is no definite answers to the questions of their origin. Some people think see the relationships to North American Indians, to Alaskan Eskimos, some even to Southeast Asians. So although they are definitely not related to Korean and Japan biological origins they look like some late Paleolithic peoples who became isolated at the end of the ice age and who occupied these islands and who later on were sort of swamped by invasions of Mongoloid related peoples. So they are really a special and distinct racial and biological group that has long, long roots in the area."

2. Commentary on Archeology by Curator William Fitzhugh

" Ainu origins have been investigated archeologically for many years, and we have a few materials here that represent some of the precursors to Ainu culture including Jomon materials which is one of the old cultures of Japan seen here and some Okhotsk culture materials in the next case. It's a very spiritual culture and these spiritual features of the art are expressed in pottery and bone and wood. (And) we see here a Jomon figure, a really beautiful piece with a lot of curvilinear designs on the clothing that look kind of similar to the kind of clothing designs that Ainu people wear today even though this is 4,000 years ago. And another piece here really represents the kind of mystical, spiritual, nature of their culture. This may be otter, or may be flying duck we're not quite sure. It's some sort of transformational figure. But it seems to have been used in a ritual context as was this mask and the ceremonial bear. The mask was found at an old cemetery site. It was found on the surface of the ground so we think that it may have been used as a kind of an emblem on a post marking a cemetery."

3. Commentary on Origins by Curator Chisato Dubreuil

"Hi. My name is Kitty (Chisato) Dubreuil. I'm co-curator of the Ainu exhibition, "Ainu, Spirit of a Northern People". Why are we interested in the Ainu at the Smithsonian Institution in the United States? That's really an interesting question. Because the Ainu have been a mystery race, our origin is still a mystery. Our language is isolated. And looking at this old archival photograph, [the] Ainu look completely different from Japanese. Some of the scholars consider Ainu as the "Lost Caucasians." And so [we are] organizing this kind of exhibition to raise the questions and hopefully we can give some kind of answers for the visitors."

Plain Text Opening | About the Exhibit | Map | Resources | Acknowledgements
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