Jōmon period

Reconstruction of the Sannai-Maruyama Site in the Aomori Prefecture. It shares cultural similarities with settlements of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula, as well as with later Japanese culture.

In Japanese history, the Jōmon period (縄文時代, Jōmon jidai) is the time between c. 14,000 and 300 BC, during which Japan was inhabited by a diverse hunter-gatherer and early agriculturalist population united through a common Jōmon culture, which reached a considerable degree of sedentism and cultural complexity. The name "cord-marked" was first applied by the American zoologist and orientalist Edward S. Morse, who discovered sherds of pottery in 1877 and subsequently translated it into Japanese as Jōmon. The pottery style characteristic of the first phases of Jōmon culture was decorated by impressing cords into the surface of wet clay and is generally accepted to be among the oldest in the world.

The Jōmon period was rich in tools and jewelry made from bone, stone, shell and antler; pottery figurines and vessels; and lacquerware. It is often compared to pre-Columbian cultures of the North American Pacific Northwest and especially to the Valdivia culture in Ecuador because in these settings cultural complexity developed within a primarily hunting-gathering context with limited use of horticulture.


The approximately 14,000 year Jōmon period is conventionally divided into several phases, progressively shorter: Incipient (13,750–8,500 BC), Initial (8,500–5,000), Early (5,000–3,520), Middle (3,520–2,470), Late (2,470–1,250), and Final (1,250–500). 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 time 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.

Recent findings have refined the final phase of the Jōmon period to 300 BC. The Yayoi period started between 500 and 300 BC according to radio-carbon evidence, while Yayoi styled pottery was found in a Jōmon site of northern Kyushu already in 800 BC.


Incipient Jōmon pottery (14th–8th millennium BC) Tokyo National Museum, Japan

The earliest pottery in Japan was made at or before the start of the Incipient Jōmon period. Small fragments, dated to 14,500 BC, were found at the Odai Yamamoto I site in 1998. Pottery of roughly the same age was subsequently found at other sites such as in Kamikuroiwa and the Fukui cave.

Jōmon pottery in the Yamanashi museum.

Archaeologist Junko Habu claims "[t]he majority of Japanese scholars believed, and still believe, that pottery production was first invented in mainland Asia and subsequently introduced into the Japanese archipelago." This seems to be confirmed by recent archaeology. As of now, the earliest pottery vessels in the world date back to 20 000 BP and were discovered in Xianren Cave in Jiangxi, China. The pottery may have been used as cookware. Other early pottery vessels include those excavated from the Yuchanyan Cave in southern China, dated from 16 000 BC, and at present it appears that pottery emerged at roughly the same time in Japan, and in the Amur River basin of the Russian Far East.

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 period has been classified by archaeologists into some 70 styles, with many more local varieties of the styles. The antiquity of Jōmon pottery was first identified after World War II, through radiocarbon dating methods. 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.

Spray style Jōmon pottery

The manufacture of pottery typically implies some form of sedentary life because pottery is heavy, bulky, and fragile and thus generally unsuitable for hunter-gatherers. However, this does not seem to have been the case with the first Jōmon people, who perhaps numbered 20,000 individuals over the whole archipelago. It seems that food sources were so abundant in the natural environment of the Japanese islands that they 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 fishers.

Chronological ceramic typology

Incipient Jōmon (14 000–7 500 BC)

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

Initial Jōmon (7500–4000 BC)

  • Botasawa
  • Igusa
  • Inaridai
  • Mito
  • Nojima
  • Lower Tado
  • Upper Tado
  • Shiboguchi
  • Kayama
  • Ugashima

Early Jōmon (5000–3520 BC)

  • Goryogadai
  • Jūsanbodai
  • Kita-Shirakawa
  • Moroiso
  • Okitsu
  • Ukishima

Middle Jōmon (3520–2470 BC)

  • Kasori E
  • Katsusaka
  • Otamadai

Late Jōmon (2470–1250 BC)

  • Horinouchi
  • Kasori B

Final Jōmon (1250–500 BC)

  • Angyo
  • Fusenmon
  • Hokurikubanki
  • Kamegaoka
  • Maeura
  • Nagatake
  • Nishihonmaken
  • Nusamai
  • Shimono

Incipient and Initial Jōmon (13 750–5 000 BC)

The Japanese archipelago, during the last glaciation in about 20,000BC.

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. As the glaciers melted following the end of the last glacial period (approximately 12 000 BC), sea levels rose, separating the Japanese archipelago from the Asian mainland; the closest point (in Kyushu) about 190 kilometres (120 mi) 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 independently. The main connection between the Japanese archipelago and Mainland Asia was through the Korean Peninsula to Kyushu and Honshu. In addition, Luzon, Taiwan, Ryukyu, and Kyushu constitute a continuous chain of islands, connecting the Jōmon with Southeast Asia, while Honshu, Hokkaido and Sakhalin connected the Jōmon with Siberia.

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 northeastern Honshu and southern Hokkaido. Many native tree species, such as beeches, buckeyes, chestnuts, and oaks produced edible nuts and acorns. These provided substantial sources of food for both humans and animals.

In the northeast, the plentiful marine life carried south by the Oyashio Current, especially salmon, was another major food source. 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 archaeologists. Other food sources meriting special mention include Sika deer, wild boar (with possible wild-pig management), wild plants such as yam-like tubers, and freshwater fish. Supported by the highly productive deciduous forests and an abundance of seafood, the population was concentrated in Honshu and Kyushu, but Jōmon sites range from Hokkaido to the Ryukyu Islands. Tigers once existed in the Japanese archipelago, but they became extinct in prehistoric times.

Early Jōmon (5000–3520 BC)

The Early Jōmon period saw an explosion in population, as indicated by the number of larger aggregated villages from this period. This period occurred during the Holocene climatic optimum, when the local climate became warmer and more humid.

Early agriculture

Azuki bean cultivation was common in southern Jōmon period Japan and also in southern China and Bhutan.

The degree to which horticulture or small-scale agriculture was practiced by Jōmon people is debated. Currently, there is no scientific consensus to support a conceptualization of Jōmon period culture as only hunter-gatherer. There is evidence to suggest that arboriculture was practiced in the form of tending groves of lacquer (Toxicodendron verniciflua) and nut (Castanea crenata and Aesculus turbinata) producing trees, as well as soybean, bottle gourd, hemp, Perilla, adzuki, among others. These characteristics place them somewhere in between hunting-gathering and agriculture.

An apparently domesticated variety of peach appeared very early at Jōmon sites in 6700–6400 BP (4700–4400 BC). This was already similar to modern cultivated forms. This domesticated type of peach was apparently brought into Japan from China. Nevertheless, in China, itself, this variety is currently attested only at a later date of 5300–4300 BP.

Middle Jōmon (3520–2470 BC)

Jōmon clay mask, bearing similarities to clay masks found in the Amur region.

Highly ornate pottery dogū figurines and vessels, such as the so-called "flame style" vessels, and lacquered wood objects remain from that time. Although the ornamentation of pottery increased over time, the ceramic fabric always remained quite coarse. During this time Magatama stone beads make a transition from being a common jewelry item found in homes into serving as a grave good. This is a period where there are large burial mounds and monuments.

The Magatama is jewelry from Jōmon period Japan, and was also found in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.
Reconstruction of Jōmon period houses in the Aomori Prefecture.

This period saw a rise in complexity in the design of pit-houses, the most commonly used method of housing at the time, with some even having paved stone floors. A study in 2015 found that this form of dwelling continued up until the Satsumon culture. Using archaeological data on pollen count, this phase is the warmest of all the phases. By the end of this phase the warm climate starts to enter a cooling trend.

Late and Final Jōmon (2470–500 BC)

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

Jōmon period clay figure from the Yamanashi Prefecture.

The Japanese chestnut, Castanea crenata, becomes essential, not only as a nut bearing tree, but also because it was extremely durable in wet conditions and became the most used timber for building houses during the Late Jōmon phase.

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 pottery period. The settlements of these new arrivals seem to have coexisted with those of the Jōmon and Yayoi for around a thousand years.

Reconstruction of a Yayoi period house in Kyushu.

Outside Hokkaido, the Final Jōmon is succeeded by a new farming culture, the Yayoi (c. 300 BC – AD 300), named after an archaeological site near Tokyo.

Within Hokkaido, the Jōmon is succeeded by the Okhotsk culture and Zoku-Jōmon (post-Jōmon) or Epi-Jōmon culture, which later replaced or merged with the Satsumon culture around the 7th century.

Population decline

At the end of the Jōmon period the local population declined sharply. Scientists suggest that this was possibly caused by food shortages and other environmental problems. They concluded that not all Jōmon groups suffered under these circumstances but the overall population declined. Examining the remains of the people who lived throughout the Jōmon period, there is evidence that these deaths were not inflicted by warfare or violence on a large enough scale to cause these deaths.

Foundation myths

The origin myths of Japanese civilization extend back to periods now regarded as part of the Jōmon period, but they show little or no relation to the current archaeological understanding of Jōmon culture. The traditional founding date of the Japanese nation by Emperor Jimmu is February 11, 660 BC. That version of Japanese history, however, comes from the country's first written records, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, dating from the 6th to the 8th centuries, after Japan had adopted Chinese characters (Go-on/Kan-on).

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

Origin and ethnogenesis

Forensic reconstruction from a local Niigata Jōmon sample.

The relationship of Jōmon people to the modern Japanese (Yamato people), Ryukyuans, and Ainu is not clear. Morphological studies of dental variation and genetic studies suggest that the Jōmon people were rather diverse, and mitochondrial DNA studies indicate the Jōmon people were closely related to modern-day East Asians. The contemporary Japanese people descended from a mixture of the various ancient hunter-gatherer tribes of the Jōmon period and the Yayoi rice-agriculturalists, and these two major ancestral groups came to Japan over different routes at different times.

The modern-day Japanese population carries approximately 30% paternal ancestry from the Jōmon. This is far higher than the maternal Jōmon contribution of around 15%, and autosomal contribution of 10% to the Japanese population. This imbalanced inheritance has been referred to as the "admixture paradox", and is thought to hold clues as to how the admixture between the Jōmon and Yayoi cultures took place. According to Mitsuru Sakitani the Jōmon people are an admixture of several Paleolithic populations. He suggests that Y-chromosome haplogroups C1a1 and D-M55 are two of the Jōmon lineages. The maternal haplogroups M7a, N9b, and G1b have been identified from ancient Jōmon specimens.

According to study "Jōmon culture and the peopling of the Japanese archipelago" by Schmidt and Seguchi (2014), the prehistoric Jōmon people descended from diverse paleolithic populations with multiple migrations into Jōmon-period Japan. They concluded: "In this respect, the biological identity of the Jōmon is heterogeneous, and it may be indicative of diverse peoples who possibly belonged to a common culture, known as the Jōmon".

A study by Lee and Hasegawa of the Waseda University, concluded that the Jōmon period population of Hokkaido consisted of two distinctive populations, which later merged to form the proto-Ainu in northern Hokkaido. The Ainu language can be connected to an "Okhotsk component" which spread southwards. They further concluded that the "dual structure theory" regarding the population history of Japan must be revised and that the Jōmon people had more diversity than originally suggested.

A 2015 study found specific gene alleles, related to facial structure and features among some Ainu individuals, which largely descended from local Hokkaido Jōmon groups. These alleles are typically associated with Europeans but absent from other East Asians (including Japanese people), which suggests geneflow from a currently unidentified source population into the Jōmon period population of Hokkaido. Although these specific alleles can explain the unusual physical appearance of certain Ainu individuals, compared to other Northeast Asians, the exact origin of these alleles remains unknown.

Full genome analyses in 2020 and 2021 revealed further information regarding the origin of the Jōmon peoples. The genetic results suggest early admixture between different groups in Japan already during the Paleolithic, followed by constant geneflow from coastal East Asian groups, resulting in a heterogeneous population which then homogenized until the arrival of the Yayoi people. Geneflow from Northeast Asia during the Jōmon period is associated with the C1a1 and C2 lineages, geneflow from the Tibetan Plateau and Southern China is associated with the D1a2a (previously D1b) and D1a1 (previously D1a) lineages. Geneflow from ancient Siberia into the northern Jōmon people of Hokkaido was also detected, with later geneflow from Hokkaido into parts of northern Honshu (Tohoku). The lineages K and F are suggested to have been presented during the early Jōmon period but got replaced by C and D. The analysis of a Jōmon sample (Ikawazu shell-mound, Tahara, Japan) and an ancient sample from the Tibetan Plateau (Chokhopani, China) found only partially shared ancestry, pointing towards a "positive genetic bottleneck" regarding the spread of haplogroup D from ancient "East Asian Highlanders" (related to modern day Tujia people, Yao people, and Tibetans, as well as Tripuri people). The genetic evidence suggests that an East Asian source population, near the Himalayan mountain range, contributed ancestry to the Jōmon period population of Japan, and less to ancient Southeast Asians. The authors concluded that this points to an inland migration through southern or central China towards Japan during the Paleolithic. Another ancestry component seem to have arrived from Siberia into Hokkaido. Archeological and biological evidence link the southern Jōmon culture of Kyushu, Shikoku and parts of Honshu to cultures of southern China and Northeast India. A common culture, known as the "broadleafed evergreen forest culture", ranged from southwestern Japan through southern China towards Northeast India and southern Tibet, and was characterized by the cultivation of Azuki beans.

Some linguists suggest that the Japonic languages were already present within the Japanese archipelago and coastal Korea, before the Yayoi period, and can be linked to one of the Jōmon populations of southwestern Japan, rather than the later Yayoi or Kofun period rice-agriculturalists. Japonic-speakers then expanded during the Yayoi period, assimilating the newcomers, adopting rice-agriculture, and fusing mainland Asian technologies with local traditions.

Vovin (2021) presented arguments for the presence of Austronesian peoples within the Japanese archipelago during the Jōmon period, based on previous linguistic research and specific Austronesian vocabulary loaned into the core vocabulary of (Insular) Japanese. He suggests that Austronesian-speakers arrived in Japan during the Jōmon period and prior to the arrival of Yayoi period migrants, associated with the spread of Japonic languages. These Austronesian-speakers were subsequently assimilated into the Japanese ethnicity. Evidence for non-Ainuic, non-Austronesian, and non-Korean loanwords are found among Insular Japonic languages, and probably derived from unknown and extinct Jōmon languages.

Cultural revival

Modern public perception of Jōmon has gradually changed from primitive and obsolete to captivating:

  • In the early 21st century, Jōmon cord marking style was revived and used on clothing, accessories, and tattoos. Archaeologist Jun Takayama has theorized that the patterns on Dogū depicted tattoos.
  • In the 1970s, a movement started to reproduce the ancient techniques of Jōmon-style ceramics. Contemporary Jōmon pottery is based on Jōmon-style ceramics and earthenware that has been replicated with ancient techniques, such as a bonfire.
  • The motifs of Jōmon artifacts are used as inspiration for vessels and origami, cookies, candies, notebooks, and neckties.
  • In 2018, a Jōmon exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum saw 350,000 visitors, 3.5 times more than expected.
  • Jōmon-style pit houses have been recreated in places such as the Jōmon Village Historic Garden.
  • Magazines such as Jōmonzine cover the prehistoric period.


See also


  1. ^ Radiocarbon measures of carbonized material from pottery artifacts (uncalibrated): Fukui Cave 12 500 ± 350 BP and 12 500 ± 500 BP Kamaki & Serizawa (1967), Kamikuroiwa rockshelter 12 165 ± 350 BP in Shikoku.

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