Author: Elisha Kayne
The Jomon people populated Japan for several millennia, developing an insular culture that was rarely influenced by those living outside their islands. Abundant wildlife gave them the ability to settle down into village life earlier than other Neolithic tribes of mainland Asia and Europe. Though life wasn’t always easy, their unique lifestyle allowed these ancient Japanese people a chance to develop a way of life rarely experienced in other regions during the same time periods.
Housing and Shelters
While construction methods varied over the 9,000 year history of the Jomon period, the majority of the excavated sites throughout Japan show that pit houses were the dwelling of choice for most. A circle was dug from the earth to depths up to 3 or 4 feet, and around 8 to 10 feet wide. Then, the Jomon would construct a basic timber frame around the circle surrounded by a thatched roof. During later periods, similar methods were used, but the size and shape of the homes and public buildings expanded to suit the needs of a growing population.
Pottery and Art
Examples of pottery found from Jomon archeological sites show some of the earliest samples of pottery in the world. The Odai Yamamoto I site has uncovered fragments which were formed as early as 14,500 BC. The earliest pottery made by Incipient Jomon peoples are characterized by their cylindrical bottoms, which cannot stand on their own. They were often decorated with braided grass, which was used to imprint images onto the wet clay. As time progressed, these decorative features became more complex and pronounced, and the bottoms of the vessels flattened. By 3,000 to 2,000 BC, a style exclusive to the Jomon began to appear. Also known as “flame style” pottery, these elaborate bowls, vases and cups were highly intricate with ornate patterns found nowhere else in the world. Around this time, stylized figurines known as Dogu also emerged. Village dwellers depended on pottery to store and cook their food, and at certain times, clay vessels also served as funerary devices where children and adults were laid to rest after death. Therefore, these clay pots and figurines would have played a central role in the daily life and ritualistic ceremonies of the Jomon peoples.
Burials and Funerary Rituals
The burial arrangements also changed significantly from age to age, and region to region. The earliest grave sites of the Jomon are often buried in shell mounds, which sometimes reached heights of up to 30 feet high and were frequently layered with red ochre. However, the most common method of laying loved ones to rest was through pit burials. At times, children and less frequently adults, were kept in jars or sacred vessels. Cremation was a rare form of funerary preparation but some examples of individual and mass cremation have been found.
Jomon culture was largely dependent on hunting, gathering and fishing for their sources of food. The forests, fields and oceans were teeming with life for several thousand years, allowing the Jomon to flourish and populate the islands of Neolithic and Bronze Age Japan. In time, they also developed forms of plant husbandry, where certain staple food items were grown and harvested in small quantities. These foods included peach and fruit trees, nut and lacquer trees, as well as adzuki beans, millet and other grains. Those living in Jomon settlements would have spent a large portion of their time in the woods or water, hunting wild boar and bears or catching fish and shellfish. Storing foods would have also been extremely vital to survival during harsher seasons, particularly for those who lived farther north.
For most of the Jomon cultures incredible history, the peoples of ancient Japan lived a comfortable life, where food was in large supply and the people were able to increase their population and develop advanced forms of art and religious philosophy. While the Jomon culture did eventually give way to the later Yayoi society, they certainly used their nearly 10,000 year legacy to form a strong foundation for future generations.