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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Jomon Period (Neolithic Foragers) (Japan)
13,000 - 300 BC

The earliest inhabitants of the Japanese islands were Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, with the long coasts providing good supplies of fish. They arrived before the end of the last ice age via land bridges which joined Early Japan to the mainland of East Asia.

Following around forty thousand years of hunter-gatherer activity, the first pottery appeared on the islands around 14,500 BC although it was not especially widespread until around 13,000 BC. It gave the period its name, with 'Jomon' meaning 'cord-marked, patterned'. Its start saw the main ice age land bridge becoming submerged by around 12,000 BC, cutting off the Jomon people from the Asian mainland and largely ensuring their security and isolation.

Large animal herds which they may have brought with them were less successful in terms of the relatively limited resources of the islands, so the Jomon people switched to foraging and fishing to supplement their diet. Archaeological evidence shows that they made use of bear, boar, fish, shellfish, yams, wild grapes, walnuts, chestnuts, and acorns.

Unlike the Neolithic Farmer culture communities of Europe which began with the Sesklo culture around 6700 BC, the Jomon did not farm. They continued to rely on a forager existence until the first rice farmers began to arrive in regions of Japan from around 900 BC (possibly Jeulman migrants who have been marginalised by the arrival of the Mumun pottery period in the Korean peninsula).

These 'invaders' seem to have been largely fended off until about 300-200 BC when the rice-planting new-arrivals largely took over to herald the start of the subsequent Yayoi period. They settled in larger numbers towards the south, while Jomon DNA survived in increasingly dominant levels further towards the north. Hokkaido especially retained a very largely Jomon-dominant DNA heritage. Overall these Neolithic inhabitants contributed greatly to the genetic make-up of modern Japanese people.

Palaeolithic sailors

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Responses of Amazonian ecosystems to climatic and atmospheric carbon dioxide changes since the Last Glacial Maximum, Francis E Mayle, David Beerling, William D Gosling, & Mark B Bush (Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 359 (1443), 2004), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Land-Use Conflict and the Rate of Transition to Agricultural Economy: A Comparative Study of Southern Scandinavia and Central-Western Korea, Kim Jangsuk (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2003), and from External Links: Japan-Guide.com, and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Early Jomon hamlet found (The Japan Times, 1997).)

c.14,500 BC

The 'Incipient Jomon Period' lasts until 5000 BC. Pots are hand-made, without the use of a wheel, and with rounded bottoms. They are used to cook in the open, supported by a pile of stones or sand. This form of pottery is amongst the oldest-known in the world.

c.5000 BC

Beginning around this time - during the 'Early Jomon' of 5000-3000 BC - the Jomon adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. A shift to drier conditions occurs across northern latitudes at the end of the Holocene Climactic Optimum (circa 7000-3000 BC) which benefits many early cultures.

Early Jomon pot
This 'Early Jomon' pot dates to around 5000 BC, with Jomon pottery perhaps being amongst the world's oldest forms of pottery (disputed, but the argument certainly has favourable radiocarbon dating to support it)

They settle into villages, some of which are quite large - the largest is known to cover about forty hectares and has a population of about five hundred people.

The inhabitants of villages near the sea continue to rely heavily on fishing while those inland still follow a forager lifestyle. The initial simple shelters soon develop into pit houses which are built around a central fireplace. The main structure is supported by pillars and accommodates around five people.

Despite this sedentary move, the Jomon are sometimes forced to move by the climate. Colder periods require proximity to the sea, as evidenced by much larger mounds of shells and fish bones found there in comparison to warmer periods when the settlement pattern shows a shift towards a greater number of inland sites in order to take advantage of the flourishing flora and fauna.

Asturian stone tool
Tools in the contemporary Asturian culture of south-western Europe at this time was used from about 4900 BC, such as the example shown here

c.3000 BC

After seeing an explosion in population numbers during the Early Jomon to a high of two hundred thousand, that figure gradually drops over the following two millennia, returning to around one hundred thousand by the time the first Yayoi rice farmers arrive about 900 BC.

This is the 'Middle Jomon Period', with pottery being more elaborately decorated and basic human figurines becoming highly popular, reflecting a style which is concurrently seen across much of East Asia, including the Jeulmun pottery period of the Korean peninsula.

c.1000 - 300 BC

The 'Late Jomon Period' (1000-300 BC) sees pottery becoming finer, thinner, and more professionally-made. Figurines now gain three-dimensional features with many depicting pregnant women, possibly as fertility offerings.

Stone circles sometime encircle villages, although they are not the greatly elaborate circles which have fallen out of favour in Western Europe during the past millennium (Britain being a prime example).

Jimmu Tenno, 'founder' of Japan
Jimmu Tenno, founder figure of modern Japan, as seen in a coloured wood engraving by Nakai Tokujiro in 1908 during the country's growing imperial status in the twentieth century

By around 900 BC Japan's period of isolation is being disrupted by a trickle of new arrivals from mainland Asia. Primarily originating from Korea (which is already in its Old Chosen period), these arrivals bring with them rice farming and different pottery styles.

The legendary arrival of Jimmu Tenno would make him and his followers part of this rice farming culture (although the dating for his arrival in the Legendary period is highly unreliable). They largely settle on Kyushu and until about 300 BC their influence on the Jomon is relatively minimal until the Yayoi period which they inspire becomes dominant.

c.300 BC

As East Asia welcomes in the Iron Age, rice culture is imported into Japan by farmers who migrate from the Korean peninsula. This is the beginning of the Yayoi cultural period in Early Japan.

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