Jomon Period in Japan

The Jomon Period in Japan spanned from about 13,000 BCE to about 900 BCE

After the Last Glacial Maximum, which was the coldest period during the latest Ice Age, around 21,000 years ago, the temperature became gradually warmer globally. The glaciers and ice sheets covering the earth’s surface started melting, and the sea levels became higher. And the Japanese archipelago was once again, and for the last time, separated from the Eurasian Continent around 13,000 years ago, becoming almost identical to what we see today on a map.

The woods in Shijimizuka Park. It is said that the vegetation around here is not very much different from 3,000 years ago.

By that time, massive mammals, such as mammoths and Naumann’s elephants, had already been extinct, greatly changing the animal distribution on the ground. The vegetation in Japan was also beginning to change. Conifer forests, which had occupied most of the land, were, little by little, replaced by deciduous broad-leaf trees, like oak, beech, chestnut, and walnut. Since these trees bore edible nuts in autumn, people began to collect these nuts, learned to preserve them, and eventually, came to settle in one place for a long time.

an ancient village in Japan
Pit dwelling houses reconstructed in the Shijimizuka Ruins (Shijimizuka Park) in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture.

They lived in a simple structure called a tateana-jukyo (a pit dwelling house) with a sunken earth floor and wooden pillars. It is generally understood that with these changes in people’s lifestyle, which were originally brought about by the global climatic and environmental change, the Paleolithic Period ended and the Jomon Period began.

Left: Ornaments of animal teeth Right: A reproduction of the bow and arrow in the Jomon Period

There were several other characteristics that marked the difference between the Jomon Period and the preceding Paleolithic Period. The emergence of the bow and arrow was one of them. This new hunting gear reflected the change in their hunting targets: with huge, but rather slow, elephants already gone, they had to hunt down more fast and nimble animals in the woods, such as wild boars and deer. Since those animals were difficult for them to hunt with only conventional tools like spears, the bow and arrow was a perfect replacement.

Stone tools in ancient Japan (縄文石器)
“Spearhead-type” stone tools dating back some 10,000 years ago, unearthed in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture

The chipped stone tools like the ones people would use in the Paleolithic Period continued to be used by the Jomon people. But they were more sophisticated and diversified. Although the technique for partially polishing a stone had been observed in the preceding era, the polished stone tools of the Jomon Period were much more refined works. The Jomon people were also able to make fishing tools, such as hooks and harpoons, out of animal bones or horns. But the metal vessel production and the full-scale rice cultivation, like the kind used with large paddies, had not yet been introduced.

Jomon Pottery

The most important difference between the Paleolithic and Jomon cultures is the emergence of earthenware in the Jomon Period. The Jomon Period is sometimes described simply as “the time people made a great number of earthenware.”

Jomon pottery unearthed at the Nenbutsurin Site in Ishikawa Prefecture. These vessels are owned by the Komatsu City Buried Cultural Property Center.

In fact, there is no better representation of the period than the group of pottery with their striking designs, which appeared in the middle of the Jomon Period. Some of the pottery had elaborate “straw-rope” patterns on the surface, while others had complex “flame-like” decorations on the rim.

"Flame-type" Jomon pottery in Japan(火焔型土器)
Jomon pottery pieces excavated at the Sasayama Site in Niigata Prefecture. National Treasures of Japan, these vessels are now possessed by the Tokamachi City Museum.

There is no doubt that those earthen vessels with noticeable designs are iconic works from the period. Even today, their bold, primitive charm attracts many people, and exhibitions are occasionally held in museums. However, it is not the case that all Jomon vessels are eye-catching like those. Throughout the long Jomon Period spanning well over 10,000 years, a variety of earthenware was produced and regional differences were also observed. For instance, earthen vessels from the earliest period of Jomon are generally simple and plain ones with no patterns or decorations on the surface. Furthermore, few straw-rope patterned vessels have been discovered in the Kyushu Region, including the islands of Okinawa, throughout the Jomon Period.

Sixth Photo (Jomon Pottery from the Nenbutsurin Site): Courtesy of the Komatsu City Buried Cultural Property Center.
Bottom Photo (“Flame-type” Jomon pottery): Courtesy of the Tokamachi City Museum.
Other Photos: taken at the Hamamatsu City Museum and Shijimizuka Park, by Koji Ikuma, with Fujifilm X-T1 & XF 35mmF2 R WR, or iPhone 6 Plus, on May 28 and June 26, 2020. Courtesy of the Hamamatsu City Museum.

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