Jomon Culture

Beginning of the Jomon Period

The end of the Ice Age coincided with the closure of the Paleolithic era, when stone tools were used as main instruments, and thus the Jomon period began approximately 13,000 years B. C. The prehistoric culture that flourished at that time is called the Jomon culture.

As climatic warming rapidly progressed, deciduous broad-leaved forests with acorn, chestnut and walnut trees became widespread, and sediment deposition due to a rise in the sea level and rainfall formed a terrain and environment that would nurture fish and shellfish.

Creation of Pottery, Bows and Arrows

Pottery was created just as the Jomon period began.

Jomon people kneaded clay to create pottery in shapes they liked and they learned to make strong containers through chemical changes by applying heat. Such containers made it possible to boil and store food. People were now able to utilize natural resources more widely by boiling ingredients, enabling them to soften tough ingredients and remove the bitter taste of plants in this way. The creation of pottery stabilized the diet of the Jomon people.

Transition of Jomon pottery

Jomon pottery continued to be produced for approximately 10,000 years, but different characteristics can be seen depending on the time and region.

Incipient
Jomon

The earliest pottery was plain. It was followed by ridge-patterned pottery and nail-impressed pottery, and pottery with many cord impressions. These were created approximately 10,000 years ago.

Earliest pottery (Odai-Yamamoto Site)

Earliest pottery
(Odai-Yamamoto Site)
*Collection of the Aomori Prefectural Museum

Initial
Jomon
Regional differences in the shape and pattern of pottery became apparent. In the Tohoku region and the southern Hokkaido region, the pattern changed from the impressed type, shell impression and finally the cord-mark type. Most pottery had a pointed bottom.

Akamido-style pottery (Choshichiyachi Shell Midden)

Akamido-style pottery
(Choshichiyachi Shell Midden)

Early
Jomon
Regional differences in the shape and pattern of pottery became more visible. In the northern Tohoku region and the southern Hokkaido region, lower layer-type cylindrical pottery with a flat bottom and various types of cord-mark patterns was made by adding fibers to the clay.

Lower layer-style cylindrical pottery (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Lower layer-style cylindrical pottery
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Middle
Jomon
Pottery decorated with applique was made in various areas. In the northern Tohoku region and the southern Hokkaido region, upper layer-type cylindrical pottery with a rim shaped like four waves and clay applique on the surface was made.

Upper layer-style cylindrical pottery (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Upper layer-style cylindrical pottery
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Enokibayashi-style pottery (Futatsumori Shell Midden)

Enokibayashi-style pottery
(Futatsumori Shell Midden)
 
 
 
 
 
 

Daigi-style pottery (Goshono Site)

Daigi-style pottery
(Goshono Site)

Late
Jomon
The form became diversified while a common decoration pattern spread in eastern Japan. Thinner pottery decorated with incisions and cord-mark was made.

Irie-style pottery (Irie Shell Midden)

Irie-style pottery
(Irie Shell Midden)

Lacquered spouted pottery (Kakinoshima Site)

Lacquered spouted pottery
(Kakinoshima Site)

Tokoshinai-style pottery (Oyu Stone Circles)

Tokoshinai-style pottery
(Oyu Stone Circles)

Final
Jomon
Elaborately decorated Kamegaoka-type pottery was made in the northern Tohoku region and the southern Hokkaido region. It showed quite a contrast to the austerely decorated pottery made in western Japan.

Kamegaoka-style pottery (Kamegaoka Site)

Kamegaoka-style pottery
(Kamegaoka Site)
*Fuindo Collection, Aomori Prefectural Museum

Bows and arrows were used to safely capture game from a distance. Fishing gears such as hooks and harpoons were also developed to catch fish and shellfish. In addition, dogs were kept and plants were cultivated. In the Jomon period, people obtained food mainly through hunting, gathering and fishing.

Hunting

Bows, arrows and stone spears were used for hunting. For these tools, shale and obsidian, which are suited for creating sharp blades, were used. The animals they hunted included deer, boar, and hare, which were captured using pits as well as bows and arrows. Dogs were also used for hunting.

Stone arrowheads (Odai-Yamamoto Site)

Stone arrowheads
(Odai-Yamamoto Site)

Stone spears, stone arrowheads (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Stone spears, stone arrowheads
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Animal bones (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Animal bones
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Gathering

Mountain vegetables and nuts, such as chestnuts, walnuts and Japanese horse chestnuts were an important source of food for the people at the time. Chestnuts do not have a bitter taste that has to be removed, and can be eaten without being processed. They are also suitable to be stored and preserved. Japanese horse chestnuts should be soaked in water to remove the bitter taste, and the remains of watering places for it have been found. It is thought that they also ate mushrooms as well as potatoes and other root crops. Hard nuts were used after being crushed and milled with stone pestles, grinding stones and stone plates.

Unearthed chestnuts, walnuts and the seeds of cultivated plants (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Unearthed chestnuts, walnuts and the seeds of cultivated plants
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Unearthed chestnuts (Ofune Site)

Unearthed chestnuts (Ofune Site)
 
 
 
 

Stone pestles, grinding stones and stone plates (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Stone pestles, grinding stones and stone plates
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Fishing

In addition to gathering shellfish at the sea and the river, people caught fish by maneuvering dugout canoes skillfully. Excavated fishhooks and harpoon heads suggest that they caught relatively large fish by line fishing and spear fishing. Stone weights are considered to have been used as fishing net sinkers for catching small fish. Jomon people had thorough knowledge about the sea, from the area close to the shore to straits, as well as the land.

Shell Midden (Tagoyano Shell Midden)

Shell Midden
(Tagoyano Shell Midden)

Bone and antler implements (Irie Shell Midden)

Bone and antler implements
(Irie Shell Midden)

Unearthed fish bones (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Unearthed fish bones
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Emergence of Villages

The transition from a nomadic life to a sedentary life led to the emergence of villages that served as a base for living. In villages, dwellings and graves were built, and eventually regional hub villages were also formed. Large buildings with thick pillars, mounds used as a ritual/space, and stone circles as large monuments were also constructed there.

Reconstructed village (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Reconstructed village (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Oyu Stone Circle (Manza)

Oyu Stone Circle (Manza)

Graves of Jomon People

Jomon people were buried in pit graves after they passed away. Graves for adults, arranged in rows, were made in villages in the Early to Middle Jomon period, when a sedentary lifestyle was established. There are also examples of graves that were built en bloc in the village center during the Late Jomon period, and graves that were independently set up away from residential areas in the Final Jomon period. Dead children were buried in pottery.

Grave of the Late Jomon period (Takasago Shell Midden)

Grave of the Late Jomon period
(Takasago Shell Midden)

Pot Burial (Komakino Site)

Pot Burial (Komakino Site)

People skillfully handled dugout canoes to achieve exchanges and trade with other people living long distances away, and transported jade, asphalt and obsidian. Many clay figurines used for rituals and accessories were also made. This indicates that they had a rich spiritual world.

Large jade bend (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Large jade bend
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Sword made of whale bone (Kitakogane Shell Midden)

Sword made of whale bone
(Kitakogane Shell Midden)

Bracelets made of white-lined bittersweet (Tagoyano Shell Midden)

Bracelets made of white-lined bittersweet
(Tagoyano Shell Midden)

Stone artifacts made of obsidian from Hokkaido (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Stone artifacts made of obsidian from Hokkaido
(Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Clay tablets with the impression of feet (Kakinoshima Site)

Clay tablets with the impression of feet
(Kakinoshima Site)
 

Ornamental comb made of deer horn (Futatsumori Shell Midden)

Ornamental comb made of deer horn
(Futatsumori Shell Midden)

Rituals and Rites

Many remains of religious and ritualistic items whose purpose has not been identified have been found, including artifacts in the shapes of people, animals, and sword-like stones. These are thought to have been used in rites for fertility and safety at hunting, memorial services for ancestors, and as prestige goods.

Flat clay figurine (Isedotai Site)

Flat clay figurine (Isedotai Site)

Clay figurine (Komakino Site)

Clay figurine (Komakino Site)

Tools for prayer and rituals (Oyu Stone Circle)

Tools for prayer and rituals
(Oyu Stone Circle)

Lacquerware and Wood Products

Lacquering, which had been established around the Early Jomon period, is an integrated technique that shows the advanced skills of Jomon people at that time. Chestnut trees were indispensable for the life of Jomon people; they were not only an important source of food, but were also used as material for posts of buildings, containers, tools such as sticks for digging, and fuel.

Colored pottery (Kamegaoka Site)

Colored pottery (Kamegaoka Site)
*Fuindo Collection, Aomori Prefectural Museum

Lacquered wooden vessel (Korekawa Site)

Lacquered wooden vessel
(Korekawa Site)
 
 
 
 
 

Red-lacquered pottery (Korekawa Site)

Red-lacquered pottery
(Korekawa Site)

Physical Characteristics of Jomon People

The average height of Jomon people was approximately 157 cm for men and 147 cm for women. It is thought that they had a muscular build and sculptured faces with double eyelids and thick lips.

Since teeth with cavities have been found, it is thought that Jomon people ate much starchy food. A great number of whipworm parasite eggs have been unearthed, and this finding indicates that Jomon people must have suffered abdominal pain.

Deformed ankle joints have also been found, suggesting that they probably often sat down on their heels or squatted.

Jomon face, Yayoi face

Jomon Culture in World History

Since the earliest known pottery, which exemplifies the beginning of the Jomon period, has been unearthed in Aomori Prefecture, it is now thought that the earliest pottery was created in the Far East of East Asia.

Rice cultivation began in the downstream basin of the Yangtze River approximately 8,000 years ago, at the time of the early Jomon period in Japan, and people started to cultivate foxtail millet, millet and other coarse cereals shortly after in northeastern China.

While the Sannai-Maruyama Site was thriving during the Middle Jomon period, civilization was flourishing in other parts of the world; the Yellow River civilization in the Yellow River basin (China), the Indus Valley civilization in the Indus River basin, the Egyptian civilization along the Nile River, and the Mesopotamian civilization in the Tigris/Euphrates river basin.

Jomon Culture in Japanese History

The Jomon period continued for approximately 10,000 years until the beginning of the Yayoi period, when full-scale rice cultivation began on the Japanese archipelago approximately 2,300 years ago.

The Jomon culture continued for a very long period. It was not a stagnant or immature society, but a mature society with superior technology and rich spiritual elements. It can be said to have reached the ultimate development of a hunting and gathering culture.

Since Jomon people are the direct ancestors of contemporary Japanese people, it’s no exaggeration to say that contemporary life is an extension of the Jomon culture.

Comparative chronology of the Jomon period and world history

Age Time division Major developments World developments Jomon sites

Approx.
13,000

Paleolithic period

・Microlithic culture spreads throughout the Japanese archipelago.

・Homo erectus pekinensis prospers.

・Lascaux cave paintings are drawn.

Approx.
9,000

Incipient

・Pottery and stone arrowheads begin to be used. Permanent settlements spread, and settlements are formed.

⑬Odai-Yamamoto Site

Approx.
5,000

Initial

・Climate warming increases and the sea level rises (Jomon transgression).

・Shell middens are formed.

・Rice cultivation begins in the downstream basin of the Yangtze River.

②Kakinoshima Site (– Late period)

Approx.
3,000

Early

・Cylindrical pottery culture is formed.

・As the number of settlements increases, some of them begin to play a more important role in the region.

・The technique involved in lacquer processing develops.

・The Chinese civilization begins.

・The Mesopotamian civilization begins.

④Kitakogane Shell Midden
⑦Sannai-Maruyama Site (– Middle period)
⑪Tagoyano Shell Midden (– Middle period)
⑭Futatsumori Shell Midden (– Middle period)
⑤Irie Shell Midden (– Late period)
⑩Korekawa Site (– Final period)

Approx.
2,000

Middle

・Large-scale hub settlements develop.

・Trading of jade, obsidian, etc. thrives.

・The Pyramid of Khufu is constructed.

・The Indus Valley civilization begins.

①Ofune Site
⑮Goshono Site

Approx.
1,000

Late

・The number of large-scale hub settlements seen in the Middle period decreases and settlements become decentralized.

・Stone circles emerge.

・The Code of Hammurabi is established.

・The Yin Dynasty is established.

・Tutankhamen assumes the throne.

③Kiusu Earthwork Burial Circles
⑥Takasago Shell Midden (- Final period)
⑧Komakino Site
⑯Oyu Stone Circles
⑰Isedotai Site

Approx.
300

Final

・Kamegaoka culture flourishes.

・Goggle-eyed clay figurines, clay masks and many other tools for rituals are made along with a variety of accessories.

・Rice cultivation is introduced in northern Kyushu.

・Spring and Autumn period

⑨Omori-Katsuyama Site
⑫Kamegaoka Site
Yayoi period

・Yoshinogari Site flourishes.

・China is unified by the Qin Dynasty.

・The Colosseum is constructed.

Comparative chronology of the Jomon period and world history

* Click the image to enlarge it.

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