Jomon Period

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A Middle Jômon ceramic vessel, c. 3000-2500 BCE. Freer Gallery of Art.
  • Japanese: 縄文時代 (Joumon Jidai)

The earliest categorized period of Japanese history extending from roughly 8,500 BCE to 300 BCE.[1] The period is named for pottery bearing cord marks[2] from this period. The Jômon period in the Japanese islands may have seen the earliest invention (discovery) of pottery (ceramics) technology in the world.

The majority of Jômon pottery was, of course, quite simple and utilitarian in style and design. However, for a brief period towards the end of the Jômon period, some communities created exceptional vessels with flamboyant flame-like shapes; examples of these found in archaeological excavations show traces of food, and evidence of having been used over fires, thus indicating that these dramatic objects were, in fact, used for practical food preparation purposes.[3] Wide-eyed doll-like figures known as dôgu are also oft-cited examples of Jômon pottery; typically found broken in particular ways, archaeologists have surmised that these doll-like figures may have played a ritual purpose, being deliberately broken as part of the ritual of activating the object, in order to provide healing, or perhaps some other effect.

The earliest evidence for human habitation in the Japanese archipelago dates to roughly 35,000 years ago; humans might have lived in the islands before that, however. These people are believed to have entered the islands from the north, and to be related to those who settled Kamchatka and Sakhalin, and entered North America.[4] They were chiefly hunter-gatherers and fishers, who wielded stone tools and are designated as a Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) society. This society gave way to the beginnings of what is termed the Jômon culture with the gradual onset of a variety of developments, chief among them the invention of pottery. The invention of pottery is among the chief characteristics by which archaeologists define the shift from Paleolithic to Neolithic (New Stone Age). Scholars have noted it particularly interesting that this hunter-gatherer society should have developed pottery, since in the rest of the world pottery was quite typically developed for storage for grain & other agricultural products.[5] Other developments at this time include advancements in trapping technology, and in bows & arrows, expanded use of seafood and marine products, increased size of settlements, and the limited beginnings of agricultural cultivation. Evidence from Jômon period sites, including pieces of bone and shell, traces of pollen, and other sorts of remains, indicate that Jômon peoples likely consumed a very diverse diet, including making use of multiple parts of a given plant or animal (e.g. not just the fruit, but also the flower, stem, and root); excavations at such sites have uncovered evidence of the consumption of more than sixty species of mammals including not only deer and boar, but also monkey and tanuki, as well as fifty-five types of plants, thirty-five species of birds, and more than 420 species of marine life. The bones of birds and sea mammals, as well as of other creatures, were often used to make tools.[6]

It is unclear what kind of watercraft Jômon people might have used to cross the open sea, though evidence has been found for interactions between the main islands and Korea, Hokkaidô, the southern Kuriles, the Izu Islands, and Sado Island, indicating they must have done so. A few examples of waterlogged wooden canoes for river and lake travel, however, have been excavated relatively intact.[7]

Culture, lifestyles, technology, and societal organization were not uniform across the archipelago, nor across the Jômon period, however. While some of the largest and most numerous settlements have been found in central and northern Honshû, sites associated with the Jômon culture appear throughout the archipelago, from Hokkaidô to the Ryukyus. Though it is extremely difficult to estimate the size of the population, some scholars have suggested a population of 200,000 across the archipelago, concentrated chiefly in the Kantô plain.[5] Archaeologist Richard Pearson describes the period as a "large loosely integrated cultural complex."[8] Along the coasts, salmon, tuna, bonito, fugu, ayu, and shellfish, as well as freshwater fish, were a major part of the diet, along with venison, tubers, and other plants; in other parts, edible nuts and other forest foods, both plant and animal, were prominent. Nuts in particular seem to have been a particularly intensively utilized and staple food.[9] Some plants were intentionally cultivated, but this is generally described by scholars as having been a "developed" form of gathering (as in hunting & gathering), as the society did not seek to dramatically alter its environment, nor organize its lifestyles and economy around agriculture, as later peoples of the archipelago would.[10]

Tools were still made chiefly of wood and stone, but now included a wider range of objects, including canoes, a variety of fishing nets and hooks, shovels, and pit traps; many communities also made use of domesticated dogs, which were used to assist in hunting, and are not believed to have been eaten in the Jômon period, though dog meat did become part of the diet in the Yayoi period.[11] Technologies such as the use of lacquer, the fermentation/brewing of wines, and the baking of cookies[12] or the like, possibly with yeast, were also known as early as the Jômon period.

By around 7000 BCE, people were first living in underground, or above-ground, dwellings, while by around 5000 BCE, settlements grew more set and permanent, and larger, with many people living in pit dwellings made of wood, thatch, and/or earth. Preservation techniques including the smoking and salting of foods, combined with the advent of pottery for storage, were crucial to the emergence of larger and more permanent settlements. Large communal storehouses came to be constructed at, or as, the centers of villages.

The end of the Jômon is marked by the introduction of wet rice cultivation, quite possibly by a different people coming into the archipelago from outside, settling there, and taking over (or intermarrying into the Jômon population), establishing a new mode of society. This new period is called the Yayoi period.

Previous Period
Jômon Period Following Period
Yayoi Period


  • Tatsuo Kobayashi, “Nurturing the Jomon,” in Jomon Reflections (Oxford: Oxbow, 2004), 73-97.
  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 6-8.
  1. Some sources give starting dates as early as 14,500 BCE; Schirokauer, et al., 6. Some evidence has also been found for human habitation going back as far as 200,000 years ago, or even earlier. David Lu, Sources of Japanese History, New York: McGraw Hill (1973), 3.
  2. 縄 meaning "cord" or "rope," and mon 文 meaning "markings"
  3. "Jômon flame pot from the Dôdaira site, Tsunan town," gallery labels, British Museum.[1]
  4. Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 2.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Craig, 4.
  6. Kobayashi, 75-76.
  7. Richard Pearson, Ancient Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2013), 4.
  8. Richard Pearson, Ancient Japan, Sackler Gallery (1992), 62.
  9. Kobayashi, 82.
  10. Kobayashi, 88.
  11. Kobayashi, 87.
  12. Kobayashi, 89.
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