Jomon Period

This article is about the Japanese archaeological culture. For the Korean archaeological culture, see Jeulmun period.

The Jōmon period (縄文時代 Jōmon jidai?) is the time in Prehistoric Japan from about 12,000 BC[1] and in some cases cited as early as 14,500 BC[2] to about 300 BC, when Japan was inhabited by a hunter-gatherer culture which reached a considerable degree of sedentism and cultural complexity.

The name "cord-marked" was first applied by the American scholar Edward S. Morse who discovered sherds of pottery in 1877 and subsequently translated into Japanese as jōmon.[3] The pottery style characteristic of the first phases of Jōmon culture was decorated by impressing cords into the surface of wet clay. This pottery, dated to around 16,000 years ago, is perhaps the oldest in the world (pottery nearly as old has been found in southern China, the Russian Far East, and Korea[4]). The period was rich in tools and jewelry made from bone, stone, shell, and antler; pottery figurines and vessels; and lacquered wood.[5][6][7] The Jōmon is often compared to pre-Columbian cultures of Pacific Northwest North America because in both regions cultural complexity developed within a primarily hunting-gathering context (with limited use of horticulture).[8][9]


The very long—approximately 14,000 years—Jōmon period is conventionally divided into a number of phases: Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late and Final, with the phases getting progressively shorter. Most dates for the change of phase are broadly agreed, but dates given for the start of the Incipient phase still vary rather considerably, from about 14,000 BC to 10,500 BC. The fact that this entire period is given the same name by archaeologists should not be taken to mean that there was not considerable regional and temporal diversity; the chronological distance between the earliest Jōmon pottery and that of the more well-known Middle Jōmon period is about twice as long as the span separating the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza from the 21st century.

Dating of the Jōmon sub-phases is based primarily upon ceramic typology, and to a lesser extent radiocarbon dating.

Incipient and Initial Jōmon (14,000–4,000 BC)

Traces of Paleolithic culture, mainly stone tools, occur in Japan from around 30,000 BC onwards. The earliest "Incipient Jōmon" phase began while Japan was still linked to continental Asia as a narrow peninsula.[10] As the glaciers melted following the end of the last Ice Age (approximately 12,000 years ago), sea levels rose, separating the Japanese archipelago from the Asian mainland; the closest point (in Kyushu) about 190 km (120 miles) from the Korean Peninsula is near enough to be intermittently influenced by continental developments but far enough removed for the peoples of the Japanese islands to develop their own ways.

Within the archipelago the vegetation was transformed by the end of the Ice Age. In southwestern Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, broadleaf evergreen trees dominated the forests, whereas broadleaf deciduous trees and conifers were common in north-eastern Honshu and southern Hokkaido. Many native tree species, such as beeches, buckeyes, chestnuts, and oaks produced edible nuts and acorns. These provided abundant sources of food for humans and animals.

In the northeast, the plentiful marine life carried south by the Oyashio current, especially salmon, was an additional major source of food. Settlements along both the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean subsisted on immense amounts of shellfish, leaving distinctive middens (mounds of discarded shells and other refuse) that are now prized sources of information for archeologists. Other sources of food meriting special mention include deer, wild boar, yam-like tubers and other wild plants, and freshwater fish. Supported by the highly productive deciduous forests and an abundance of seafood, the population was concentrated in central and northern Honshu, but Jōmon sites range from Hokkaido to the Ryukyu Islands.

Earliest pottery

It currently appears that the earliest pottery in the world may have been made in Japan, at or before the start of the Incipient Jōmon period (sometimes termed the Epi-Jōmon period). In 1998 a number of small fragments were found at the Odai Yamamoto I site, which have been dated to the 14th Millennium BC; subsequently more pottery of the same age was found at other sites such as Kamikuroiwa and Fukui Cave.[10][11][12] Archaeologist Junko Habu claims that "The majority of Japanese scholars believed, and still believe, that pottery production was first invented in mainland Asia and subsequently introduced into the Japanese archipelago",[12] however at present it appears that pottery emerged at roughly the same time in Japan, the Amur River basin of far eastern Russia, and China.[13]

The first Jōmon Pottery is characterized by the cord-marking that gives the period its name, and has now been found in large numbers of sites. The pottery of the whole period has been classified by archaeologists into some 70 styles, with many more local varieties of the styles.[3] The antiquity of Jōmon Pottery was first identified after World War II, through radiocarbon dating methods.[6][14] The earliest vessels were mostly smallish round-bottomed bowls 10–50 cm high that are assumed to have been used for boiling food, and perhaps storing it beforehand. They belonged to hunter-gatherers and the size of the vessels may have been limited by a need for portability; as later bowls increase in size, this is taken to be a sign of an increasingly settled pattern of living. These types continued to develop, with increasingly elaborate patterns of decoration, undulating rims, and flat bottoms so that they could stand on a surface.[15]

The manufacture of pottery typically implies some form of sedentary life due to the fact that pottery is heavy, bulky, and fragile and thus generally useless to hunter-gatherers who are constantly on the move in search of food; however this does not seem to have been the case with the first Jōmon people, who perhaps numbered some 20,000 over the whole archipelago.[10] It seems that food sources were so abundant in the natural environment of the Japanese islands that it could support fairly large, semi-sedentary populations. The Jōmon people used chipped stone tools, ground stone tools, traps, and bows, and were evidently skillful coastal and deep-water fishermen.

Population expansion

By the end of the Incipient Jōmon phase, around 8,000 BC, a semi-sedentary lifestyle apparently led to an increase in population density, so that the subsequent phase, the Initial Jōmon, exhibits some of the highest densities known for foraging populations.[16] Genetic mapping studies by Cavalli-Sforza have shown a pattern of genetic expansion from the area of the Sea of Japan towards the rest of eastern Asia. This appears as the third principal component of genetic variation in Eurasia (after the "Great expansion" from the African continent, and a second expansion from the area of Northern Siberia), which suggests geographical expansion during the early Jōmon period.[17] These studies also suggest that the Jōmon demographic expansion may have reached America along a path following the Pacific coast.[18]

Chronological ceramic typology

Incipient Jōmon (14,000–7,500 BC)

  • Linear applique
  • Nail impression
  • Cord impression
  • Muroya lower

Initial Jōmon (7,500–4,000 BC)

  • Igusa
  • Inaridai
  • Mito
  • Lower Tado
  • Upper Tado
  • Shiboguchi
  • Kayama

Early Jōmon (4,000–2500 BC)

The Early and Middle Jōmon periods saw an explosion in population, as indicated by the number of settlements from this period. These two periods occurred during the Holocene Climatic Optimum (between 4000 BC and 2000 BC), when temperatures reached several degrees Celsius higher than the present.

Middle Jōmon (2500-1500 BC)

Highly ornate pottery dogū figurines and vessels, such as the so-called "flame style" vessels, and lacquered wood objects remain from that time. Interestingly, although the ornamentation of pottery increased over time, the ceramic fabric always remained quite coarse.

The degree to which horticulture or small-scale agriculture was practiced by Jōmon people is debated, but there is evidence to suggest that arboriculture was practiced in the form of tending groves of nut- and lacquer-producing trees.[19][20]

This period saw a rise in complexity in the design of pit houses, the most commonly used method of housing at the time,[21] with some even having stone paved floors.

Late and Final Jōmon (1500-900/300 BC)

After 1500 BC, the climate cooled, and populations seem to have contracted dramatically. Comparatively few archaeological sites can be found after 1500 BC.

During the Final Jōmon period, a slow shift was taking place in western Japan: steadily increasing contact with the Korean peninsula eventually led to the establishment of Korean-type settlements in western Kyushu, beginning around 900 BC. The settlers brought with them new technologies such as wet rice farming and bronze and iron metallurgy, as well as new pottery styles similar to those of the Mumun culture. The settlements of these new arrivals seem to have coexisted with those of the Jōmon for around a thousand years. The new farming culture is called Yayoi after an archaeological site near Tokyo.[6]

The Final Jōmon is succeeded by the Yayoi period (ca. 300 BC-AD 300) outside Hokkaido; within Hokkaido the Jōmon is succeeded by the Zoku-Jōmon (post-Jōmon) or Epi-Jōmon period. The Zoku-Jōmon culture is in turn succeeded by the Satsumon culture around the 7th century.

Main periods

  • Middle Jōmon (3000–2000 BC):
  • Katsusaka/Otamadai,
  • Kasori E1,
  • Kasori E2.
  • Late Jōmon (2000–1000 BC):
  • Horinouchi,
  • Kasori B2,
  • Angyo 1
  • Final Jōmon (1000–300 BC):
  • Tohoku District
  • Oubora B
  • Oubora BC(Ōfunato, Iwate
  • Oubora C1
  • Oubora C2
  • Oubora A
  • Oubora A'
  • Kanto District

Foundation myths

The foundation myths of the origins of Japanese civilization extend back to periods now regarded as part of the Jōmon period, though they show little or no relation to what we know archaeologically of Jōmon culture. 11 February 660 BC is the traditional founding date of the Japanese nation by Emperor Jimmu. This version of Japanese history, however, comes from the country's first written records, the Kojiki and Nihongi or Nihon shoki, dating from the 6th to the 8th centuries CE, after Japan had adopted the Chinese writing system (Go-on/Kan-on).[22]

Some elements of modern Japanese culture may date from this period and reflect the influences of a mingled migration from the northern Asian continent and the southern Pacific areas and the Jōmon peoples. Among these elements are the precursors to Shinto religion, some marriage customs, architectural styles, and technological developments such as lacquerware, laminated bows, metalworking, and glass making.

Genetic make-up

The relationship of Jōmon people to the modern Japanese and Ainu remains uncertain. Some consider the Japanese of today to be descended from a mixture of the ancient hunter-gatherer Jōmon culture and the Yayoi culture[23][24] rice agriculturalists. According to this theory these two major ancestral groups came to Japan over different routes at different times. Recent Y-DNA haplotype testing has led to the popularly accepted (though untested) hypothesis that haplogroup D-M55 Y-DNA, which has been found in some percentages of samples of modern Japanese, Ryukyuan, and Ainu males, may reflect patrilineal descent from members of a Jōmon period culture of the Japanese Archipelago.[25] Analysis of mitochondrial DNA of Jomon skeletons from Hokkaido indicates that haplogroups N9b and M7a are likely a Jomon contribution to the modern Japanese mtDNA pool.[26]

Mark J. Hudson of Nishikyushu University posits that Japan was settled by a Proto-Mongoloid population in the Pleistocene who became the Jōmon, and that their features can be seen in the Ainu and Okinawan people.[11] The Jomon share some physical characteristics, such as relatively abundant body hair, with Caucasians, but anthropological genetics shows them to derive from a separate genetic lineage from that of Europeans.[27]

See also

Ancient Japan portal



  • Aikens, C. Melvin, and Takayasu Higuchi. (1982). Prehistory of Japan. Studies in Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. (main text 337 pages; Jomon text 92 pages) ISBN 0120452804
  • Habu, Junko, Ancient Jomon of Japan, Cambridge University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-521-77213-3
  • Habu, Junko, "Subsistence-Settlement systems in intersite variability in the Moroiso Phase of the Early Jomon Period of Japan"
  • Hudson, Mark J., Ruins of Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands, University of Hawai`i Press, 1999, ISBN 0824821564
  • Imamura, Keiji, Prehistoric Japan, University of Hawai`i Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8248-1852-0
  • Kobayashi, Tatsuo. (2004). Jomon Reflections: Forager Life and Culture in the Prehistoric Japanese Archipelago. Ed. Simon Kaner with Oki Nakamura. Oxford, England: Oxbow Books. (main text 186 pages, all on Jomon) ISBN 9781842170885
  • Koyama, Shuzo, and David Hurst Thomas (eds.). (1979). Affluent Foragers: Pacific Coasts East and West. Senri Ethnological Studies No. 9. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.
  • Mason, Penelope E., with Donald Dinwiddie, History of Japanese art, 2nd edn 2005, Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 0131176021, 9780131176027
  • Michael, Henry N., "The Neolithic Age in Eastern Siberia." Henry N. Michael. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Ser., Vol. 48, No. 2 (1958), pp. 1–108. (laminated bow from Korekawa, Aomori)
  • Mizoguchi, Koji, An Archaeological History of Japan: 10,000 B.C. to A.D. 700, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, ISBN 0812236513
  • Pearson, Richard J., Gina Lee Barnes, and Karl L. Hutterer (eds.). (1986). Windows on the Japanese Past: Studies in Archaeology and Prehistory. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan. (main text 496 pages; Jomon text 92 pages)
  • Temple DH. 2007. "Stress and dietary variation among prehistoric Jomon foragers." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 133: 1035-1046.
  • Temple DH. 2008. "What can stature variation reveal about environmental differences between prehistoric Jomon foragers? Understanding the impact of developmental stress on environmental stability." American Journal of Human Biology 20:431-439.

External links

  • A History of the World in 100 Objects.
  • Department of Asian Art. "Jomon Culture (ca. 10,500–ca. 300 B.C.)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)
  • Memory of the Jomon Period by The University Museum, The University of Tokyo
  • The Prehistoric Archaeology of Japan by the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History
  • Chronologies of the Jomon Period
  • Jomon Culture by Professor Charles T Keally
  • Yayoi Culture by Professor Charles T Keally