JOMON PEOPLE (10,500–300 B.C.)

Jomon people

The Jomon people were hunter-gatherers who subsisted primarily on hunting animals like deer and boar, collecting acorns, nuts and fruits, and fishing and collecting mollusks in coastal waters. Jomon culture first arose in Japan at least 12,000 years ago and perhaps as early as 16,000 years ago, when the islands of Japan were connected to the Asian mainland. The nomadic patterns of the Jomon people revolved collecting fruits and nuts in the autumn and hunting and collecting shellfish in the spring.

Most Jomon people remained nomadic until around 5000 B.C., when they began settling in large, complex villages and building crudely-roofed houses, known as “tate-ana jukyo” (pit dwellings), supported by pillars built over shallow holes dug in the ground. Their settlements were particularly numerous along the sheltered bays on the Pacific Ocean side of Honshu. At that time climate was lightly warmer than it is today and the sea level was several meters higher than now. Many of the areas where these settlements occurred were along tidal flats.

One of their main sources of food was clams and other tidal mollusks. They were plentiful, nutritious and easy to harvest. Throughout coastal Japan one can find shell-middens — massive 5,000- to 6000-year-old piles of discarded shells of clams these ancient people feasted on. Archeologist have uncovered huge middens at Jomon sites. One was over 200 meters long. The Jomon people in these areas also hunted and fished — 6,000-year-old Jomon sites have yielded fish hooks, net sinkers, spears and dugout canoes — but the clams were a stable and reliable food source.

By 3,000 B.C., the Jomon people were making clay figures and vessels decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbraided cord and sticks (jomon means "patterns of plaited cord") with a growing sophistication. These people also used chipped stone tools, traps, and bows and were hunters, gatherers, and skillful coastal and deep-water fishermen. They practiced a rudimentary form of agriculture and lived in caves and later in groups of either temporary shallow pit dwellings or above-ground houses, leaving rich kitchen middens for modern anthropological study. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Jomon people made fantastic designs on the edges of their pottery, wore large earrings and other jewelry, made a variety of ritual objects including phallic rods and ritual knives. Most impressive were their ritual clay figurines that possibly represented gods or were symbols of fertility. The Jomon possessed developed burial practices and views on life after death. One custom that endured in rural areas until fairly recently was placing the placenta and afterbirth of newborn children into a pot and burying at the entrance of a village.

By the late Jomon period, a dramatic shift had taken place according to archaeological studies. Incipient cultivation had evolved into sophisticated rice-paddy farming and government control. Many other elements of Japanese culture also may date from this period and reflect a mingled migration from the northern Asian continent and the southern Pacific areas. Among these elements are Shinto mythology, marriage customs, architectural styles, and technological developments, such as lacquerware, textiles, metalworking, and glass making. [Source: Library of Congress]

Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ;Essay on Rice and History ; Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu ; Yoshinogari Historical Park ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Jomon Life

Diorama, with Jomon child

Charles T. Keally wrote: “The Jomon is a pottery-using culture, a characteristic often associated with early farming cultures. But throughout the approximately 10,000 years of its development, from around 11,000 B.C. to around 500 B.C., its subsistence strategy focused on hunting, fishing and gathering, including, in favorable regions, intensive shellfishing. The degree of Jomon dependence on plants, land animals and fish varied greatly with time and space. Hunting was primarily with the bow and arrow; fishing included the use of hooks and lines, nets and traps, and spears; and plant use included digging sticks for root plants, and grinders and querns for the many kinds of nuts that were utilized. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

“The Jomon people everywhere in Japan exploited an extremely wide range of land animals, fish, plants, molluscs and birds. A highly generalized listing of the primary foods of the Jomon would give deer and boar, sea bream and sea perch, chestnuts, walnuts and acorns, and clams and oysters. Regionally, tuna and sea mammals were significant. But the Jomon people used almost all available food plants and animals to some degree, taking a sustainable number of those things they preferred and using the rest to fill out their diet. Their diet was particularly rich in eastern Japan. ++

“Jomon villages are often said to be laid out with the conical thatched dwellings in a circular or horseshoe-shaped pattern, with an open plaza in the center. These settlements are thought to have had 5-10 or more dwellings in use at any one time. Such villages did exist in some regions and at some times, but they are not representative of the typical Jomon settlement site. The typical site contained only a few dwellings with no apparent pattern to their distribution. Some settlements had only one dwelling. The recently famous Sannai Maruyama site in Aomori is unique and not one that can be generalized to the whole of the Jomon culture.” ++

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: Since the Jomon period lasted thousands of years and the Jomon people were really groups of many hunter-gathering tribes each with their own customs. Customs often differed from region to region. However, there were no definite boundaries between the regions, instead with the flourishing trade and exchange between the regions, and as people migrated, customs also spread, adapting or changing over time as well. The basic Jomon culture was actually an amalgam or mixture of cultural and customary practices of different groups of people.” [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Jomon Period Technology

whale bone tools

The Jomon people were originally dismissed as primitive hunter gathers. They made pottery, yes, but without a potters wheel; and they had no agriculture, domesticated animals or metal-working — all of which had existed in China at least by 1300 B.C. One of the main reasons for the lack of development of Jomon people was the fact that Japan was separated by water from more advanced cultures in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Recent findings indicate that the Jomon people were much more advanced that previously thought. The discovery of six enormous holes with the remains of one-meter-thick wooden pillars inside at a Jomon site indicates that the Jomon people built large, sophisticated structures. Possessing the technology and the social organization to move and raise large pillars has traditionally been regarded as beyond the means of hunter-gatherer societies. There are cases of dugout canoes dating back to the Jomon (ca 10,000 B.C.-ca 300 B.C.) and Yayoi (ca 300 B.C.-ca 300 A.D.) periods being discovered in Japan.

A closer look at the Jomon people has also reveled they had separate cemeteries for children and adults and dabbled with agriculture, planting millet, other grains and chestnuts. Paw prints found around 3,000-year-old Jomon dwelling found near Otsu in Shiga prefecture indicate the Jomon people kept dogs. There is also evidence of slash and burn agriculture dated to 6,000 years ago and hut dwellings with thatched roofs dated to 10,000 years ago.

Excavation work at the Sannai-Maruyama archeological site in Aomori Prefecture has revealed a large prehistoric village that thrived nearly 7000 years ago. The Jomon inhabitants utilized a wide variety of forest and marine resources, but the staple of their diet was cultivated chestnuts, grown in extensive orchards. Chestnuts were one of the very first plants to be actively cultivated in Japan. Huge chestnut logs were also used as columns for building homes and ceremonial centers. One impressive structure is supported by six chestnut columns, each a full meter in diameter, and is thought to have stood three stories high. [Source: Kevin Short, Yomiuri Shimbun]

Scientists now think that some technologies and culture — such as buckwheat farming, lacquerware-making — thought to have been introduced to Japan from Korea and China may have actually traveled the other way: from Japan to the Asian mainland.

In Ehime Prefecture a pile of stones in the Inland Sea once thought to be a natural formation is now believed by some to have been made by an ancient people when it was discovered that rays of sunlight pierce a hole between the rocks during the spring and autumn equinoxes.

Seasonal Activities of the Jomon People

Kawagoe wrote: “Some scholars have come up with a Jomon calendar that to summarize the seasonal rounds and patterns of activities that the Jomon people engaged in for their survival. It corresponds to the foods that are available naturally during the different times of the year. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“Jomon activities are thought to have been organized like this: In the early spring and continuing into summer: Coastal Jomon people in Eastern Japan are busy fishing the species of fish that come into the estuaries. From excavated shell middens along the eastern Pacific coastal regions, there is proof that the Jomon people preferred catches of snapper (Chrysophrys major), black snapper (Acanthopagrus schlegeli), and sea bass (Lateolabrax japonicus).

“Shellfishing, for clams (Meretrix lusoria), shortnecked clams (Tapes japonicus), corbiculae (Corbicula. japonica) and granular ark (Tegillarca granosa), is carried out mostly from spring to summer. Jomon shell middens show that the shellfish deposits decreased gradually in later summer and autumn, and that no shellfishing was carried out during winter. People also probably caught salmon in summer and autumn (but perhaps because the bones are finer, very little salmon has showed up in the middens so far).

“In the summer, fishes normally found in the open ocean such as mackerels, tunas (Thunnus sp.) and bonitos (Katsuwonus sp.) – those of the family Scombridae, are caught as they migrate along the rocky-shore zones during this season. Such fishes are commonly found in Jomon shell middens of the Tohoku district. In places such as Hokkaido, sea mammal hunting (whale and dolphin) is carried out intensively in the summer. People living along the estuaries, inlets or bays in eastern Japan as well as in northern coastal areas facing the Pacific ocean, are not only able to obtain food from the sea, but they also gathered in spring, edible plant foods like ferns, bamboo shoots and other leaf buds. From the forest, around 300 kinds of edible plants could be found.

“In the autumn, gathering and collecting food from the forest was an important strategy for survival and for a stable settled lifestyle for Jomon people living everywhere. Particularly abundant foods in the forest after the climate became warmer following the Early Jomon period, were chestnut (Castanea crenata), walnut (Juglans mandshurica), hazelnut (Corylus sieboldiana), and acorn (Castanopsis cuspidata). Many Japanese archaeologists believe the Jomon people tended or nurtured chestnut and walnut trees and other plants near their settlements.

“In Jomon settlements everywhere, underground storage pits have been found, often containing large stores of all sorts of nuts and acorns. Additionally, they also collected berry, mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) fruit and wild grapes. Gourd (Lagenaria sp), gram or shiso beefsteak herb (Perilla sp) were also collected but these were not important to the diet, probably used to supplement the diet or to prepare ceremonial foods. Some roots, bulbs and tubers could be collected all year round.

“For Jomon people living in the west and in the eastern interior, in areas between freshwater rivers or streams, marshes or lakes, and mountainous laurel or deciduous forests, the collecting of edible plant foods and hunting of land mammals was absolutely vital. This was because they did not have backup supplies of seafood from estuaries, bays or the open sea.

“In winter, hunting was carried out most intensively. Although the Jomon people probably hunted wild boar and deer during other seasons of the year to supplement their food supply, they hunted more of these animals later in the year (from October to December). This is because wild boar and deer form large herds during the winter season. From examining the middens (or their kitchen dumps), it is clear that more wild boar was caught than deer.”

Jomon Society

Kawagoe wrote: “For a long time, people thought that Jomon people must have lived simple lives as bands of hunters where everyone was more or less of equal status other than the tribal chief or village headman. However, experts today are beginning to paint a rather different picture of Jomon society. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Kawagoe wrote:“Some experts think the Jomon people from the Early Jomon period onwards led rather affluent lives, which means that they ate good food and owned many material things. Many Jomon villages were rather large, had storage pits, and some had raised storage buildings. Archaeologists think someone important must have controlled the abundant food resources, directed and coordinated the the work of collecting, processing, storing and distributing the food.

“Some settlements specialized in producing very valuable products for trade (e.g. dried shellfish or sea mammal meat, jade beads, earrings or shell jewellery, lacquered ware, clay vessels or figurines, salt, asphalt or obsidian raw materials, important stone tools or stone rods). Experts believe that where goods that have prestige were being produced and traded, someone in the village would have controlled the valuable goods for trade. Such a person in control would likely have had considerable political power.

“A fairly common pattern seen in Jomon villages where the pit houses were arranged in a circular manner with a central space. This type of circular village system is called the kanjo shuraku. Archaeologists believe that the construction of such a village required labour, cooperation, good long-term planning and a communication system with someone in charge.

“Many burial pits have been excavated from the central spaces of the kanjo shuraku village settlements. In the beginning of Jomon era, grave goods were less common and when there were grave goods, they tended to be fairly ordinary things like stone tools or a pot that might have perhaps identified the person as a hunter or a potter. As time went by and the era progressed, some of the Jomon people were buried with more grave goods than others. And some of Jomon people were buried with more valuable grave goods than others…such as red lacquered burial clothes, shell bracelets or stone rods. These grave goods suggest to experts that there was unequal status between Jomon people…like there are rich and poor people in our modern society today.

“Also excavated from Jomon village sites were many ceremonial objects like masks, clay figurines and ceremonial earthern lamps. The artifacts are evidence of complex myths, religious beliefs, rich symbols and ideas about the life cycle, regeneration and the seasons. Archaeologists think a religious leader, probably a shaman was a likely figure of power who had led the people in the rites and ceremonies of the Jomon society.

Jomon People: Suburban Hunter-Gathers

Shell bracelets

Kawagoe wrote: “Studies of Late and Final Jomon skeletons from the Tsukumo shell midden in Okayama prefecture and the Yoshigo shell midden in Aichi prefecture, showed that a very select few females of Jomon society wore a large number of shell bracelets on both wrists. The bracelets were too small for adults and must have been put on when they were children. Since the shell bracelets were very fragile, it meant that these Jomon girls had been selected when they were still little — for a special role in society that would not have required them to do any daily chores like collecting shellfish and gathering plant food. Some scholars figure that these girls may have been shamans in charge of the ceremonial rituals of the Jomon society. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Burials with grave goods in areas with stone circles in the Late and Final Jomon. Some scholars think that from the Middle Jomon period onwards social inequality existed. They figure that there must have been special leaders and important elders in Jomon society from the special treatment of certain graves, the more refined grave goods that were found, the presence of grave goods with children and differences in facilities within houses. They observed a trend to include grave goods with children and infants in 17 percent-25 percent of all cases in Hokkaido and the Kanto in Final Jomon. The grave goods marked the graves as belong to children who had inherited wealth and ascribed status.Archaeologists also know that Jomon men and women did different jobs and owned different goods of prestige in society. Jomon women carried out the gathering of shellfish and acorns, nuts, and berries and other plant foods. Jomon men did the hunting and other jobs that required strength and labour like construction work. Archaeologists figured this from examining the skeleton remains which showed that the bones of male skeletons are five times more likely to have fractures than the bones of female skeletons. Jomon men and women were also buried with different grave goods: slitted stone or clay earrings are found only on female skeletons while waist pendants are found only male skeletons.

“Differences in styles of pottery, houses, fireplaces and burials between the different groups indicate socially complex tribal relations. This can be seen from the groupings of burials, probably of kin groups and families. Many of the large settlements had a long span of occupation with pit dwellings being built and rebuilt over thousands of years in the same area. These settlements were likely occupied by the same family and whose family members lived in the area from generation to generation, preserving their control of territory and resources.”

Peaceful Jomon People

Lacquered pottery

In a study published in the journal Biology Letters, researchers said they found little evidence of violence or warfare on Jomon people skeletons. Researchers in Japan searched the country looking for sites of violence and found none, leading them to surmise that violence is not an inescapable aspect of human nature.

Sarah Kaplan wrote in the Washington Post: “They found that the average mortality rate due to violence for the Jomon was just under 2 percent. (By way of comparison, other studies of the prehistoric era have put that figure somewhere around 12 to 14 percent.) What’s more, when the researchers sought out “hot spots” of violence — places where lots of injured individuals were clustered together — they couldn’t find any. Presumably, if the Jomon had engaged in warfare, archaeologists would have bunches of skeletons all in a heap...That no such bunches seemed to exist suggests that wars weren’t being fought. [Source: Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, April 1, 2016 \=]

Archaeologists have yet to find any evidence of battles or wars during the Jomon Period, a remarkable finding considering the period spanned 10,000 years. Other evidence of the peaceful nature of Jomon people includes: 1) no signs of walled settlements, defences, ditches or moats; 2) no finds of unusually large numbers of weapons such as lances, spears, bows and arrows; and 3) no evidence of human sacrifice nor masses of unceremonially dumped bodies. Nevertheless, there is evidence that violence and aggression occurred. The hip bone of a male individual, dated to the Initial Jomon period, was found at Kamikuroiwa Site in n Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku, that had been perforated by a bone point. Arrowheads have been found in bones and broken crania at other sites dated to the Final Jomon Period. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Peaceful Jomon People and What It says About Human Nature

Sarah Kaplan wrote in the Washington Post: “The implication of both those finds, the authors argue, is that humans are not as innately drawn to violence as the Nataruk group [a group of bones found in Kenya that date to the same time and display signs of violence] and Thomas Hobbes might lead us to believe. “It is possibly misleading to treat a few cases of massacre as representative of our hunter-gatherer past without an exhaustive survey,” they wrote in their study. “We think warfare depends on specific conditions, and the Japanese data indicate that we should examine these more closely.” This innocuous-sounding assertion hits at the heart of an ongoing debate in the field of anthropology: Where does our violence come from, and is it getting better or worse? [Source: Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, April 1, 2016 \=]

“One school of thought holds that coordinated conflict, and eventually all-out warfare, arose with the establishment of permanent settlements and the development of agriculture. Though it smacks of 18th century sentimentalism, not to mention racism (the idea of a “noble savage” whose innate goodness has not been corrupted by civilization was used to justify all manner of abuses against non-European people) there is a logic to this way of thinking. Farming is associated with the accumulation of wealth, the concentration of power and the evolution of hierarchies — not to mention the rise of good-old-fashioned notion “this is mine” — all phenomena that make it more likely that one group of people will band together to attack another. \=\

Jomom mask

“But other anthropologists ascribe to the Thomas Hobbesian notion that people have an innate capacity for brutality — though perhaps modern civilization gives us more outlets for expressing it. Luke Glowacki, a Harvard University anthropologist who studies the evolutionary roots of violence, believes that the Nataruk discovery illustrated this second view. “This new study shows that warfare can and did occur in the absence of agriculture and complex social organization,” he told Scientific American in January. “It fills in important gaps in our understanding of the human propensity for violence and suggests a continuum between chimpanzee raiding and full-blown human warfare.” \=\

“Some studies have even suggested that violence is essential to our evolution. In a 2009 study in the journal Science, the economist Samuel Bowles modeled how prehistoric warfare may have given rise to complex communities that took care of one another — forming the genetic basis of altruism — because evolution favored groups that were able to get along during their violent pursuit of victory over others. If that’s the case, the authors of the Japanese study say, inter-group violence must have been pretty pervasive during the prehistoric period — that’s the only way it could have so dramatically shaped human evolution in a relatively short span of time.

“But their study, and others like it, have found hunter-gatherer societies where lethal conflict was relatively rare. “We are not asserting warfare was uncommon among hunter-gatherers in all areas and times,” they write. “However … it is possibly misleading to treat a few cases of massacre as representative of our hunter-gatherer past without an exhaustive survey.” Instead, they argue, warfare is probably the product of other forces — scarce resources, changing climates, growing populations. This actually isn’t so different from an argument made by Mirazon Lahr, the lead author on the Nataruk study. Even though the human capacity for violence is deep-rooted, it doesn’t get expressed in all-out war until it is triggered by the right array of circumstances: a sense of membership in a group, the existence of an authority to command it and a good reason — land, food, wealth — to risk your life. “Being able to carry out violence is a prerequisite for warfare,” she told Discover. But, “one does not necessarily lead to the other.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; National Museum of Science, Tokyo kahaku.go; Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido and Northern Tohoku; Jomon clay figures, Tokyo National Museum;

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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