Book Reviews

In the Wake of the Jomon: Stone Age Mariners and a Voyage across the Pacific by
Jon Turk

International Marine/McGraw-Hill (USA)

Jon Turk is a scientist, kayaker and, some would say, fool, who sets out to undertake a Kon Tiki-ish journey from northern Japan to Alaska by kayak and trimaran. He sails by hugging the Bering Straits and Alaska archipelago for the 3000-mile journey from the bamboo forests of Japan, by way of coastal Siberia, to Gambell, Alaska. His aim: to find out if Kennewick Man, the prehistoric skeleton discovered in Washington state in 1996, and traced back genetically to the Jomon of northern Japan, could have sailed rather than walked the widely accepted land bridge that is thought to have provided the passage between Asia and North America for prehistoric man. 

Turk bills his cinematic "you are there" work of nonfiction as an anthropological work, but in fact that is far too narrow a description. In addition to his scientific quest (his PhD is actually in chemistry), it is a kayaking adventure, a dare-devilish and truly life-threatening adventure in the risk-taking spirit of Outside magazine. It is also a study in the challenges and rewards of working as a team in inhospitable conditions, both with a stranger—a translator—and eventually his wife. But by far the real anthropology in Jomon is one of modern cultural anthropology: Turk provides a glimpse into the life and people who live along the coast of what is now the Russian Federation. 

By interacting with the people and villages that dot outposts of this part of the Pacific Rim, Turk sees the social and economic effects of the splintering of the former USSR. He encounters stiff-necked, vodka-swilling bureaucrats carrying Uzis who also often reveal their more compassionate side. They rescue Turk and his translator from an almost fatal situation in a World War II Russian tank and also welcome (shaking their heads in disbelief) these foolhardy "tourists" to their spare family dinner tables. We meet others too: reindeer herders, Kamchatka hunters who wrestle grizzlies with their bare hands, and shaman—as well as wildlife, from pods of dolphins to menacing grizzlies that force them to sleep in their kayaks rather than on the beach.

He also finds a true and loyal mate in his travels. After his first translator abandons him, his wife and another translator, a Russian named Misha, join him. Misha is in a sorry state and says that he would rather die in the monster whirlpools and sheer, killer waves they know they will encounter, than from his desk job, which is killing him with ulcers and stress-related illness. Turk’s athletic wife, who he obviously loves dearly, must eventually quit the rowing trip early due to pain from carpal tunnel syndrome in her hands. It is then that Misha transforms from stranger to soul mate. At one point, when all hope seems lost, it is Misha who insists they find a way to go on, even as the plucky Turk is about to give up.

Turk’s party is challenged most of all by the enormity and incessant discomfort of the journey. They are wet the whole trip, often sleeping in the boats at night, soaked in cold water. Twenty-foot waves that come out of nowhere are created by conditions such where the six-mile-deep Pacific meets up with the Sea of Okhotsk, which is only a few hundred feet deep. Kayakers who read the book say it is a miracle Turk survives the conditions, and the journey was pronounced one of the ten greatest sea kayaking expeditions of all time by Paddler magazine.

While it is a relatively small part of the book, Turk does ruminate off and on about the Jomon and their possible journey by sea. He speculates whether it was disease, warfare, famine, or wanderlust that might have caused them to undertake such a perilous journey eastward.

Tragically, Turk’s wife passes away in 2005, two weeks before the release of Jomon. He deals with his grief in a manner befitting the book: by connecting with a 100-year-old female Koryak shaman, Moolynaut. Koryaks are an indigenous northeast Asian people living on the northern part of the Kamchatka peninsula and surrounding mainland in what is now the Russian Federation. His next book, Turk says, will be an account of his time spent living among them.

Reviewed by Kathryn Olney