Jomon Culture

Did Japan's Hunter Gatherers Invent Pottery Before Anyone Else?

Reconstructed Jomon Village, Sannai Maruyama
Reconstructed Jomon Village, Sannai Maruyama. MIXA / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Jomon is the name of the early Holocene period hunter-gatherers of Japan, beginning about 14,000 B.C.E. and ending about 1000 B.C.E. in southwestern Japan and 500 C.E. in northeastern Japan. The Jomon made stone and bone tools, and pottery beginning at a few sites as early as 15,500 years ago. The word Jomon means 'cord pattern', and it refers to the cord-marked impressions seen on Jomon pottery.

Jomon Chronology

  • Incipient Jomon (14,000–8000 B.C.E.) (Fukui Cave, Odai Yamamoto I)
  • Initial Jomon (8000–4800 B.C.E.) (Natsushima)
  • Early Jomon (ca 4800–3000 B.C.E.) (Hamanasuno, Tochibara Rockshelter, Sannai Maruyama, Torihama Shell Mound)
  • Middle Jomon (ca 3000–2000 B.C.E.) (Sannai Maruyama, Usujiri)
  • Late Jomon (ca. 2000–1000 B.C.E.) (Hamanaka 2)
  • Final (1000–100 B.C.E.) (Kamegaoka)
  • Epi-Jomon (100 B.C.E.–500 C.E.) (Sapporo Eki Kita-Guchi)

The Early and Middle Jomon lived in hamlets or villages of semi-subterranean pit houses, excavated up to about one meter into the earth. By the late Jomon period and perhaps as a response to climate change and a lowering of sea levels, the Jomon moved into fewer villages sited mainly on the coastlines and there relied increasingly on river and ocean fishing, and shellfish. The Jomon diet was based on a mixed economy of hunting, gathering, and fishing, with some evidence for gardens with millet, and possibly gourd, buckwheat, and azuki bean.

Jomon Pottery

The earliest pottery forms of the Jomon were low-fired, round and pointed-based forms, created during the Initial period.

Flat-based pottery characterized the Early Jomon period. Cylindrical pots are characteristic of northeastern Japan, and similar styles are known from mainland China, which may or may not suggest direct contact. By the Middle Jomon period, a variety of jars, bowls, and other vessels were in use.

The Jomon have been the focus of much debate concerning the invention of pottery.

Scholars today debate whether pottery was a local invention or diffused from the mainland; by 12,000 B.C.E. low-fired pottery was in use throughout East Asia. Fukui Cave has radiocarbon dates ca. 15,800–14,200 calibrated years BP on associated charcoal, but Xianrendong Cave in mainland China so far holds the oldest pottery vessels discovered on the planet, by perhaps a thousand years or so. Other sites such as Odai Yamomoto in Aomori prefecture have been found to date the same period as Fukui Cave, or somewhat older.

Jomon Burials and Earthworks

Jomon earthworks are noted by end of the Late Jomon period, consisting of stone circles around cemetery plots, such as at Ohyo. Circular spaces with earthen walls up to several meters high and up to 10 meters (30.5 feet) thick at the base were built at several sites such as Chitose. These burials were often layered with red ochre and were accompanied by polished stone staffs which may represent rank.

By the Late Jomon period, evidence for ritual activities is noted at sites by elaborate grave goods such as masks with goggle eyes and anthropomorphic figurines accompanying burials placed in ceramic pots. By the Final period, farming of barley, wheat, millet, and hemp developed, and the Jomon lifestyle diminished all over the region by 500 C.E.

Scholars debate whether the Jomon were related to the modern Ainu hunter-gatherers of Japan. Genetic studies suggest that they are likely biologically related to the Jomon, but the Jomon culture is not expressed within modern Ainu practices. The known archaeological correlate of the Ainu is called the Satsumon culture, who are believed to have displaced the epi-Jomon about 500 C.E.; Satsumon may be a descendant of the Jomon rather than a replacement.

Important Sites

Sannai Maruyama, Fukui Cave, Usujiri, Chitose, Ohyu, Kamegaoka, Natsushima, Hamanasuno, Ocharasenai.