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About the Jomon period

The 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 BCE.

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.

The Creation of Pottery, Bows and Arrows

Pottery was created just as the Jomon period began.

People of the Jomon period 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 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)
*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 Site)
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)
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)
Enokibayashi-style pottery
(Futatsumori 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 Site)
Lacquered spouted pottery
(Kakinoshima Site)
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 Burial 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 gathering, fishing and hunting.

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 (Ofune 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 Mound
(Tagoyano Site)
Bone and antler implements
(Irie Site)
Unearthed fish bones
(Sannai Maruyama Site)

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 spears, stone arrowheads
(Sannai Maruyama Site)
Animal bones
(Sannai Maruyama Site)

The Emergence of Settlements

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

Sannai Maruyama Site
Oyu Stone Circle (Manza)

Graves of the Jomon Period

People at that time were buried in pit graves after they passed away. Graves for adults, arranged in rows, were made in settlements 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 settlement 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.

Pit Grave (Takasago 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)
Sword made of whale bone
(Kitakogane Site)
Bracelets made of white-lined bittersweet
(Tagoyano Site)
Stone artifacts made of obsidian from Hokkaido
(Sannai Maruyama Site)
Clay tablets with the impression of feet
(Kakinoshima Site)
Ornamental comb made of deer horn
(Futatsumori Site)

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 Stone Circles)
Clay figurine (Komakino Stone Circle)
Tools for prayer and rituals
(Oyu Stone Circles)

Lacquerware and Wood Products

Lacquering, which had been established around the Early Jomon period, is an integrated technique that shows the advanced skills of people at that time. Chestnut trees were indispensable for the life of the 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 Burial Site)
*Fuindo Collection, Aomori Prefectural Museum
Lacquered wooden vessel
(Korekawa Site)
Red-lacquered pottery
(Korekawa Site)

The Physical Characteristics of People in the Jomon Period

The average height of people at that time 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.

The Jomon Period 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.

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 2,400 years ago.

The Jomon period 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.

Comparative chronology of the Jomon period and world history

Age Time division Major developments World developments
BCE Paleolithic period
  • Microlithic culture spreads throughout the Japanese archipelago.
  • Homo erectus pekinensis prospers.
  • Lascaux cave paintings are drawn.
Approx.
13,000
Approx.
9,000
Jomon Period Incipient
  • Pottery and stone arrowheads begin to be used. Permanent settlements spread, and settlements are formed.
 
Approx.
5,000
Jomon Period 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.
Approx.
3,000
Jomon Period 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.
Approx.
2,000
Jomon Period Middle
  • Large-scale hub settlements develop.
  • Trading of jade, obsidian, etc. thrives.
  • The Pyramid of Khufu is constructed.
  • The Indus Valley civilization begins.
Approx.
1,000
Jomon Period 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.
Approx.
400
Jomon Period 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
  Yayoi period
  • Yoshinogari Site flourishes.
  • China is unified by the Qin Dynasty.
  • The Colosseum is constructed.
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