Paleolithic Period in Japan

The Japanese Paleolithic Period spanned from about 35,000 BCE to about 13,000 BCE

The earliest presence of human beings on the Japanese archipelago should mark the beginning of the Japanese Paleolithic Period, but determining the exact start date of this is very difficult. This is mainly because Japanese soil consists largely of volcanic ash, which is highly acidic and has, over tens of thousands of years, melted the organic materials it contained, like human bones, clothes, animal hides, and wooden tools. So, in Japan it is generally difficult to find anything organic from the geological strata older than 15,000 BCE unless certain conditions in the soil exist. (As one of these rare examples, at the Tomizawa Ruins in Miyagi Prefecture, they found a number of tree roots and trunks, besides some signs of human and animal activities, from a layer from around 20,000 years ago.) But basically, at present, almost all we know about how the earliest Japanese lived back in those days comes from chipped stone tools. Since stone tools are inorganic materials, they can be unearthed in their nearly original states even from Paleolithic rock layers from more than 30,000 years ago.

Ice Age stone tools discovered in Japan
“Knife type” stone tools dating back some 20,000 years, unearthed in western Shizuoka Prefecture

Today, it is generally believed that first humans arrived and settled on the Japanese archipelago during the period roughly stretching from 38,000 BCE to 33,000 BCE, because the oldest stone tools in Japan, according to most archaeologists, have been discovered in layers from around that period throughout the country. And this theory doesn’t contradict greatly with the widely accepted belief about the long journey of our direct ancestors: Homo sapiens first appeared somewhere in Africa around 200,000 years ago (give or take a few thousands). And some of them left their native continent and settled in other parts of the world around 100,000 to 70,000 years ago, eventually reaching Eastern Asia around 40,000 to 35,000 years ago.

Fossils of Naumann's Elephant discovered in Japan
Fossilized molar (Left) and bone (Right) from a Naumann’s Elephant, discovered near Lake Hamana in Shizuoka Prefecture

Studies suggest that, in those days, the temperature of the earth was colder than it is now, and there were a lot of glaciers on the earth’s surface, which in turn means the level of the sea water was lower by the total amount of those glaciers. Under these conditions, the Japanese archipelago is considered to have broken off and reconnected with the Eurasian Continent several times. This seems obvious from the fossils of extinct mammals which have been found across the country: A number of fossil molars which are considered to be mammoths’ were discovered in various places in Hokkaido; and fossil fragments of Naumann’s elephant (the top photo on this page shows its skeleton model) and Giant Yabe elk were unearthed in great number from the remains found near Lake Nojiri in Nagano Prefecture in the Chubu Region. As it is known that these massive animals originated on the continent, researchers more or less agree that the first inhabitants in Japan were the people who came following them to the Far Eastern archipelago.

An artist’s rendition of one day in the life of the Paleolithic people, based on the excavation results at the Tomizawa archaeological site in Miyagi Prefecture

About the lives of the Paleolithic people in Japan, very little is currently known. But many think they were basically hunters who moved constantly throughout the land to track animals. They seem to have lived in a simple tent-like house made of animal hides. It is certain that they used chipped stone tools. And the mounds of small stones, where they likely butchered animals and steamed the meat, have also been discovered. But they didn’t yet have any technique for making earthen vessels, not to mention metal vessels. So, it is thought that probably they couldn’t boil their foods or eat any kind of soup.

Various Types of Stone Tools

The earliest stone tools discovered in Japan are very primitive types of chipped stone tools. And they include a particular type where only one side of a stone is sharply polished. It is sometimes cited as one of the earliest polished tools in the world. Throughout the Paleolithic Period, stone-tool making techniques advanced and regional differences in forms gradually began to emerge. Although it is not clear exactly what kind of purpose each of these tools was used for, it is thought that some tools were used for skinning, others for felling or digging, while some were attached to the tip of a wooden shaft and used as a spearhead. Today, researchers are busy sorting, categorizing, and naming these primitive tools, which vary in their shape and size, time period they were used, and the area they were excavated from.

Top photo (Skeleton model of Naumann’s Elephant): taken by Koji Ikuma on June 26, 2020, with Fujifilm X-T1 & XF 35mmF2 R WR. Courtesy of the Hamamatsu City Museum.
Second photo (two photos of stone tools): taken by Koji Ikuma on May 28, 2020, with iPhone 6 Plus. Courtesy of the Hamamatsu City Museum.
Third photo (two photos of fossil bones from a Naumann’s Elephant): taken by Koji Ikuma on June 26, 2020, with Fujifilm X-T1 & XF 35mmF2 R WR. Courtesy of the Hamamatsu City Museum.
Illustration (“At a campsite in Tohoku in the Paleolithic Period”): by Shuichi Hosono. Courtesy of the Sendai City Board of Education.

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