Emergence of the Jomon

I have visited several museums which have some great Jomon artefacts, most recently in Hokkaido. Last year I went to the Northern Peoples Museum in Abashiri and last month I went to the Otaru Municipal Museum.

Here is a bit about the Jomon.

We can break the Jomon Period into four groups.

Incipient – 12,000 – 10,000 BP
Early – 10,000 – 5,000 BP
Middle – 5,000 – 4,000 BP
Late – 4,000 – 2,400 BP

The Incipient Jomon Period is characterised by the use of pottery. The earliest believed use pottery is 13,780 +/- 170 calibrated to 16,520 BP. This pottery technology is believed to have come from the north land bridge route from Siberia.

Middle to late Jomon c3,500 BP
Middle to late Jomon c3,500 BP

It is believed the Japanese archipelago has been connected to the Asian mainland by land bridges on at least three occasions. The first at 500,000 BP, second at 200,000 BP and the last time was during the last glacial period at 21,000 – 18,000 BP. There were two main land bridges, one in the north and one in the south. At the last glacial period sea levels were believed to be about 120m lower than current levels.

Middle to late Jomon and stone tools
Middle to late Jomon and stone tools

The Chosun Strait which separates Korea and Kyushu is 120m deep, the Tsuragu Strait which separates Honshu and Hokkaido is 130m deep. In the north, the Soya Strait which separates Hokkaido from Sakhalin is 60m deep, and Sakhalin is separated by the Nevelskoy Strait connecting to Siberia which is very narrow and only 10m deep. These land bridges are thought to have allowed movement of humans and animals from the Asian mainland into Japan.

Various stone flakes and blades have been found throughout Japan dating back to 17,000 BP. These artefacts are not standardised and are of various shapes and compounds. It is believed the assemblage of stone flakes and blades are highly regionalised and was very dependent on the availability of local rock. But as the Palaeolithic period faded to become the Jomon period we see resource localities become fixed.

By 16,000 to 15,000 BP spearhead shaped points are believed to have been used specifically as spearheads that evolved from knife shaped blades. The spearhead blades have been found throughout the Kanto and Chubu regions . These spearhead blades are not big by any means and could only have been used to kill small animals such as deer and boar.

Jomon hunting weapons
Jomon hunting weapons

By 13,000 BP the climate had become warmer, only 3-4 deg C below what we have today. Large mammals became extinct and the sea level rose isolating the Japanese peninsula which allowed a dramatic change in flora and fauna and the connection to the Asian mainland had come to an end. Around 11,000 BP the earth’s climate went through a sudden change know as the “Younger Dryas Event”. This event was also felt in Japan and over a period of only a thousand years the climate became cold but suddenly warmed once again by 7 deg C. The Jomon hunter gatherers of this period had to adapt to the unusual spikes in the climate and we can find how they adapted by looking at their stone tools.

The northern tradition is characterised by chisel shaped micro cores which seem to have originated in Siberia and southern micro cores that are cone shaped which are thought to have originated in the Yellow river region of China. These micro blades are only 2-3 mm long and 5 mm wide. They were fixed on wood and bone acting as a handle and could be replaced if broken or damaged. It is also around this time bow and arrow technology made an appearance.

Jomon pottery found in the Otaru region in Hokkaido
Jomon pottery found in the Otaru region in Hokkaido

Large stone blade technology eventually gave way to this micro blade technology. There are several reasons for this change. The extinction of large mammals and the change in the environment and rock shelter sites emerge and a suggested change in hunting styles.  Large hunting parties in a low wooded landscape began to change to small hunting parties hunting small mammals in a heavily forested landscape. These rock shelters suggest seasonal hunting activities and the start of organised labour.

Arboriculture was practiced by Jōmon people in the form of tending groves of nut- and lacquer-producing trees.  A domesticated variety of peach, apparently from China, appeared very early at Jōmon sites circa 4700BCE. Several sites (including Torihama, Sannai Maruyama and Mawaki in central and northern Honshu) of the Early Jōmon (4,000–2500 BCE) and Middle Jōmon (2500–1500 BCE) periods show evidence of cultivated plants, including barley, barnyard millet, buckwheat, rice, bean, soybean, burdock, hemp, egoma and shiso mint, mountain potato, taro potato, and bottle gourd. Many archeologists believe that these cultivated plants were only used to supplement the Jōmon diet, which still relied heavily on hunting, fishing and gathering.

Most of these domesticated plants, including rice and millet, are very unlikely to have been domesticated independently by the Jōmon hunter-gatherers, and almost certainly required the migration of farmers from China or Korea. The hundreds of ancient DNA samples from the Middle East and Europe have confirmed that the spread of agriculture always involved the migration of farmers and did not propagate purely by cultural diffusion. Consequently, it is extremely likely that Chinese Neolithic farmers brought these crops to Japan, perhaps in several waves of migration which would have taken place between 4500 and 2500 BCE.

Kagoshima, in Kyushu and on the Kanto plains we find the first significant Jomon settlements. These are basic human dwellings containing storage pits in circular buildings. Within the settlement archaeologists have found hammer stones, grinding stones, clay pots and fishing technology such as hooks and numerous shell middens.

Otaru pottery
Otaru pottery

Although isolated from the Asian mainland from the last glacial period the Jomon had the technology and knowledge to live and grow in Japan. Increased predictability in the climate and knowledge of the land, flora and fauna allowed them to prosper for over 10,000 years before the Yayoi migrated from Korea.

4 thoughts on “Emergence of the Jomon

  1. Hi, thanx for the info. but may I know where you got your sources from? Thought it might be good to include your references to lend some credibility 🙂


    1. Hi Honey. The Jomon was still a hunter gatherer culture. The only weapons used were for hunting. Small stone blades and arrow heads, things like that. It was the Yayoi period where weapon technology from Korean farmers and fishermen became bigger and more lethal.


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