Author: Elisha Kayne
It can be difficult to imagine the world which existed during the ancient Neolithic period. It was a time when woolly mammoths could still be found roaming the landscape, when the end of the last Ice Age was still a recent memory. Men of this era were transitioning into the current Holocene period, as temperatures thawed and movement between geographical areas became easier. People often envision hunter gatherer societies of this era to be far removed from any recent events, as most Neolithic cultures associated with sites like Gobekli Tepe and the Lascaux cave complex were long ago replaced by settled agricultural societies. The Jomon period is an incredible exception to this rule. While Neolithic civilizations were falling into disrepair in areas of the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Europe, the Jomon peoples of Japan continued to thrive well into the Iron Age.
Timeline of the Jomon Period
Because of it’s astounding duration, the Jomon Period is frequently divided by phases, which include:
- Incipient – 14,500 to 8,000 BC
- Initial – 8,000 to 5,000 BC
- Early – 5,000 to 3,450 BC
- Middle – 3,450 to 2,420 BC
- Late – 2,420 to 1,220 BC
- Final – 1,220 to 350 BC
During the beginning of the Incipient phase, the islands of Japan were part of a peninsula still connected to the Asian continent. By 10,000 BC, melting glaciers flooded many coastal areas, and the peninsula became islands, isolating the population of Japan from its neighbors. While the end of the Ice Age had brought about major geographical changes, the warmer weather also gifted the people of the Incipient Jomon period with abundant forests. Food became plentiful, and the people largely lived on a diet of nuts, acorns, fish, deer, boar and wild roots and vegetables. This time also brought with it the development of early pottery. This indicates that though the men and women were hunting and gathering their food, they could live a semi-sedentary lifestyle due to a bountiful supply of food in the area. Some evidence has shown they also began growing and cultivating fruit and nut trees, beans, gourds, and hemp before moving into the Initial phase. Through the Initial and Early Jomon phases, the population began to increase exponentially, and it was during this time when large settlements were created. Shelters and communities became much more complex, and by the Middle period, incredibly advanced pottery and figurines known as Dogu were developed. It wasn’t until the Late and Final phases of the Jomon period that a significant decrease in the population occurred. Due to cooling temperatures, certain foods may have become scarce and the environment less forgiving. Newcomers began to arrive towards the end of the Jomon period, and by 300 BC the farming culture of the Yayoi period dominated the region.
The Jomon Period’s Influence on Modern Day Japan
While the Jomon culture may have come to an end millennia ago, they have significantly impacted the culture and lineage of the Japanese people. Descendants of the Jomon and Yayoi likely adopted the practices of both groups, and it’s difficult to know just how much of today’s cultural heritage has been passed down from the Jomon period. Recent genetic research has shown both paternal and maternal links between ancient Jomon DNA and modern Japanese populations, including Yamato, Ryukyuan, Emishi and Ainu peoples. If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating period in Japanese history, there have been several archeological excavations in the Aomori and Hokkaido regions of Japan. Visitors are welcome at many of the sites, where you can come face to face with these ancient ancestors of modern Japan.