Jomon Period in Japan

Image of Jomon People

Today, when we Japanese hear the word ‘the Jomon Period,’ some people still picture a bearded half-naked man holding a spear. Well, that kind of image may not be completely wrong (because the Jomon people were still basically hunter-gatherers, anyway). But such a primitive lifestyle might have become slightly obsolete by the middle of the Jomon Period. After several excavations conducted throughout the country in the 1990s, researchers discovered a lot of new facts about the lives of the Jomon people. And these new findings have greatly changed our conventional views about them.

縄文時遊館
The entrance hall at Jomon Jiyukan, the museum in the compound of the Sannai Maruyama Site.

Until the late 20th century, researchers believed that the Jomon people relied completely on hunting and gathering. But studies revealed that people were already doing the plant cultivation in some regions by the middle of the Jomon Period. For example, some pieces of evidence suggest that Jomon people cultivated soybeans in several places in the Kyushu Region as well as in the main island of Honshu.

三内丸山遺跡
At the Sannai Maruyama Site.

Excavation of Sannai Maruyama Site

Above all, the excavation of the Sannai Maruyama Site in Aomori Prefecture (in the Tohoku Region) and what subsequently became clear through extensive research surprised most people a lot. People already knew the existence of this site in the Edo Period (1603 – 1867). This is because fragments of pottery or clay figurines called dogu (土偶) were sometimes unearthed even at that time.

But in 1994, during a survey for the purpose of building a prefectural baseball stadium, researchers found six large pieces of chestnut tree trunks. And that led them to think that these had been the pillars of something large and the site used to be a large ancient settlement. Realizing the significance of this discovery, the prefectural government then decided to halt the stadium construction and embarked on research and a full-scale excavation.

Today, archaeologists think that the Sannai Maruyama was a flourishing Jomon village which lasted for as long as some 1,500 years, from about 5,500 to 4,000 years ago. Many findings tell us that the villagers were intelligent people. They were compassionate and they cherished the memory of their ancestors. They arranged the graves neatly on both sides of the streets and buried children carefully in earthenware.

三内丸山遺跡
A reconstruction of the largest pit dwelling house in Japan at the Sannai Maruyama Site.

The Largest Pit House in Japan

What surprised people the most was how big some of the buildings were and how well organized the entire village was. They found about a dozen traces of huge pit dwelling houses, and the largest of them spanned about 32 meters in length and 9.8 meters in width. With a total floor space of 250 square meters, this one is the largest pit house in Japan. Now, there is a reconstructed version of this structure in the compound and we can actually enter into it to see its interior. It is not clear what purposes people used this structure for. But researchers think it was some kind of communal hall or a workshop for the village residents.

Jomon Period in ancient Japan
Left: Interior at the largest pit dwelling house in Japan. Right: A replica of a pillar pit for the large “six-pillar structure” with the remnant of a chestnut tree trunk in it.

The Six-Pillar Structure

Another important reconstruction in the compound is the large ‘six-pillar structure’. It is one of the highlights for visitors to the Sannai Maruyama Site. First, they discovered the six holes (which I mentioned above), each with a diameter and depth of about two meters. These holes were neatly arranged in two rows 4.2 meters apart. And in each hole there remained the remnant of a chestnut tree trunk. This finding led them to think that this was a large building supported by six huge pillars made out of chestnut tree trunks. Again, the purpose of this structure is unclear. Some speculate that it was a watch tower, while others think people used it for some religious purposes.

Sannai Maruyama site in Aomori Prefecture in Japan
A reconstruction of the large “six-pillar structure.”

Other than the huge buildings mentioned above, there were a considerable number of smaller structures. It seems most of them were obviously typical pit-dwelling houses. But several of them were seemingly pillar-supported buildings with a raised-floor. It is because researchers couldn’t find any signs of flooring or hearth on the ground. As with the large ‘six-pillar structure,’ the pillars of these buildings were arranged with an equal space.

高床式建物
Pillar-supported buildings with a raised-floor.

Artifacts from Sannai Maruyama

The total area of Sannai Maruyama Site spans about 35 hectares. It is seven times larger than the area of the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium. This site had a large garbage dump in the area which we now call the Northern Valley, as well as a huge ‘earth mound’ called morido at the south, north, and west sides of the compound. The heights of these mounds are, in some parts, taller than an average human.

Lives of ancient Japanese
Left: Fragments of pottery discovered at the Northern Valley. Right: Morido (earth mound).

Huge amounts of artifacts have been unearthed from the garbage dump and mounds. The total amount of pottery fragments excavated at the Sannai Maruyama Site was very large. And because of that, tens of thousands of crates were required to store them. Also, excavators have discovered more than 1,500 pieces of dogu figurine from the northern and southern mounds. Some researchers assume that these figurines were generally used for some kind of religious or shamanistic purposes on occasions such as festivals. Other findings include various types of ornaments and tools made of jade or obsidian. These materials were not indigenous to the region. So it is obvious that trade had already been conducted actively between several places across the country.

竪穴式住居
Pit dwelling houses reconstructed at the Sannai Maruyama Site.

Cultivation of Chestnut Trees

In addition to these visible findings, extensive scientific research revealed a couple of facts. For example, they analyzed the DNA of the chestnuts excavated at the Sannai Maruyama Site. And they concluded that those chestnut trees were not the wild species but the cultivated ones. Studies of pollen traces in the soil also suggested that, in the middle of the Jomon Period in Japan, there were chestnut tree forests close to the settlement. Being resistant to moisture, chestnut lumber is an ideal material for home construction. So, researchers assume that people at Sannai Maruyama cultivated chestnut trees not only to eat their nuts, but also to use them as a building material when there was a need.

pit dwelling house in Japan (tateanashikijukyo)
A pit dwelling house (Left) and the interior (Right).

All of these findings from the Sannai Maruyama Site surprised us a lot in the 1990s. They presented to us a much more cultured, intelligent, and organized image of Jomon people than we had imagined them to be.

三内丸山遺跡・世界遺産
Campaign for the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Aiming for the UNESCO World Heritage Site

Today, archaeologists think that the Sannai Maruyama Site was not an isolated settlement in that remote area of Aomori Prefecture, but was part of much larger settlement that spread over the surrounding prefectures including Hokkaido. And there has been an active campaign by people in Hokkaido and the prefectures of Aomori, Akita, and Iwate, aiming for its entry into the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Map of the Jomon Period in Japan
Locations of the well-known Jomon sites in Japan.

End of the Jomon Period

The technique of rice cultivation in the paddy field was introduced to Northern Kyushu through the Korean Peninsula around 900 BCE (although there are still some controversies over the exact date of this). And it eventually spread to the main island of Honshu. And it is generally understood that it was around this point that the Jomon Period finally ended and a new era, the Yayoi Period, began in Japan.

Photographs: taken at the Sannai Maruyama Site, by T. Terada.


Outbound Links (New Window)

Sannai Maruyama Site official website.
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