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April 21, 2009

Jomon Culture

by Charles T. Keally

The Jomon Culture is said to be one of the most AFFLUENT FORAGER cultures to ever exist. As a general statement that is certainly true, but the Jomon culture was too highly varied through time and space to be amenable to many general statements. Consequently, the following description of the Jomon culture is quite brief.

The "Jomon Culture" is generally distinguished from its Palaeolithic predecessor by the first appearance of pottery in the sites. But in fact the TRANSITION from the Palaeolithic culture to the Jomon culture is very gradual and the "boundary" very fuzzy. (This transition is discussed in some detail at the end of the description of the Palaeolithic culture. [link])

Archaeologically the Jomon culture is divided into SIX PERIODS and, varying somewhat with period, into five or six regions. The periods are further divided into a half dozen or more pottery phases (one scheme for Kanto has 30 pottery phases for Middle Jomon). And in some periods, especially Middle Jomon, some of the regions are divided into two or more sub-regions. The final scheme has over 200 regional-temporal phases. This extreme complexity reflects both the abundance of archaeological material and the considerable environmental change through time and space -- for its size, Japan is probably the most environmentally varied country in the world. The dates for the main Jomon periods can be generalized grossly as the following table shows (based on uncalibrated radiocarbon ages); the right column shows an example of the pottery types for Middle Jomon only, in one region of the country.

Southwestern Kanto, Middle Jomon
Incipient Jomon11,000-7500 B.C. Goryogadai I-II
Earliest Jomon7500-4000 B.C. Katsuzaka I-II
Early Jomon4000-3000 B.C. Katsuzaka III
Middle Jomon3000-2000 B.C. Kasori E Ia-Ib
Late Jomon2000-1000 B.C. Kasori E II
Latest Jomon1000-500 B.C. Kasori E III-IV
* All dates are based on uncalibrated radiocarbon age measurements.

There are two different definitions of INCIPIENT JOMON. Many archaeologists follow the definition set out by the father of Jomon pottery typology, Yamanouchi Sugao, and put the Yoriitomon series of pottery types at the end of Incipient Jomon. But other archaeologists, like myself, put the Yoriitomon series at the beginning of Earliest Jomon, because these pottery types are the first to be found in significant quantities and in all sites.

CALIBRATED RADIOCARBON DATES are available for Incipient and Middle Jomon, and for the end of the Jomon Period. The Plain Pottery in the oldest sites dates about 16,000-15,000 cal BP; the following Linear-relief Pottery about 15,000-13,300 cal BP; and the Punctated, Nail-impressed, Impressed-cord, and Rolled-cord pottery types about 13,300-11,200 cal BP. Middle Jomon in the Kanto District dates about 5400-4400 cal BP. And the end of the Jomon Period falls in the 10th century B.C.

For more detailed information on Jomon dating see the following links:

And for discussion of some of the problems in Jomon dating see the following links:

The Jomon is a pottery-using culture, a characteristic often associated with early farming cultures. But throughout the approximately 10,000 years of its development, from around 11,000 B.C. to around 500 B.C., its SUBSISTENCE STRATEGY focused on hunting, fishing and gathering, including, in favorable regions, intensive shellfishing. The degree of Jomon dependence on plants, land animals and fish varied greatly with time and space. Hunting was primarily with the bow and arrow; fishing included the use of hooks and lines, nets and traps, and spears; and plant use included digging sticks for root plants, and grinders and querns for the many kinds of nuts that were utilized.

The Jomon people everywhere in Japan exploited an extremely wide range of land animals, fish, plants, molluscs and birds. A highly generalized listing of the primary foods of the Jomon would give deer and boar, sea bream and sea perch, chestnuts, walnuts and acorns, and clams and oysters. Regionally, tuna and sea mammals were significant. But the Jomon people used almost all available food plants and animals to some degree, taking a sustainable number of those things they preferred and using the rest to fill out their diet. Their diet was particularly rich in eastern Japan.

There is now growing evidence that, at least in some times and some regions, the Jomon MANAGED their natural resources for optimum productivity and stability, and for sustainable exploitation. And there is also some fairly reliable evidence for at least limited CULTIVATION, including domesticated gourds (Lagenaria siceraria Standl var. gourda) and beans, and perhaps chestnuts and millet, as early as Early Jomon (Torihama Shellmound, Awazu Shellmound [Lake Biwa lake-bottom site], Sannai Maruyama, Hamanasuno). Plant opal even suggests possible rice cultivation in western Japan as early as Early Jomon. But the idea that there was "farming" in the Jomon period is a vast over-generalization from these occasional domesticates and the confirmed existence of wet-rice farming in the last few centuries of the period in Kyushu, just before the Yayoi period began there, or from the mistaken idea that a large population can be sustained only by farming.

Some books refer to the Jomon as the "SHELLMOUND CULTURE." This is a misnomer. About 3,000 of the more than 50,000 Jomon sites are shellmounds. But even on the eastern shores of Tokyo Bay, where shellmounds are relatively dense (there are about 600 shellmound sites around all of Tokyo Bay), most "shellmounds" are in fact little more that a number of scattered household-sized kitchen middens, not mounds at all, with less than 20% of the sites there in any one period having large horseshoe-shaped mounds. Moreover, these large mounds all belong to the last 2,500 years of the Jomon culture, and they are most common in the last 1,000-1,500 years.

Evidence from STABLE ISOTOPES also indicates that the people at shellmound sites depended much more on terrestrial food sources than they did on marine food sources. Roughly 60% of their nutrition came from C3 plants and herbivores, with only very small portions coming from fish, molluscs and C4 plants (grains). Even in Hokkaido where marine food sources were used extensively, these were sea mammals and fish far more than molluscs.

November 6, 2007
daizu, soybean (Glycine max [L.] Merrill) -- reported from the Sakenomiba site in Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture. An impression in a Middle Jomon potsherd dated about 5000 BP.
Reported October 17, 2007, by the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum. Impressions of soybeans are found in many Late Jomon sites in Kyushu. The Middle Jomon find in Yamanashi Prefecture pushes the oldest find back almost 1,000 years. (Yomiuri Shinbun. 2007. 5000 Nen mae ni Daizu Saibai [Soybean Cultivation 5,000 Years Ago]. Yomiuri Shinbun, October 18, p. 39.)

It is commonly thought that the OLDEST POTTERY in Japan is the linear-relief potsherds from the Fukui Cave site in northwestern Kyushu, dated about 10,000-10,500 B.C. In fact there are several sites, scattered all over the country except in Okinawa in the far south, that have yielded potsherds from strata dated around 11,000 B.C. -- in Hokkaido in the far north (Higashi Rokugo 2); in Aomori at the northern end of the main island of Honshu (Odai Yamamoto I); in Ibaragi (Ushirono), Tokyo (Maeda Kochi) and Kanagawa (Kamino) in east-central Honshu; and in Nagasaki (Sempukuji) in northwestern Kyushu in western Japan. The ages of these sites rival anything on the continent. But more significant is the fact that pottery becomes common in Japanese sites from around 7500-8000 B.C., except in Hokkaido and Okinawa, and that is not true of continental sites.

The Jomon POPULATION was quite high for a forager culture, especially in Middle Jomon in central Japan -- Kanto and Chubu -- when it reached a peak that might have been as dense 300 people per 100 square kilometers in that region, measured across the 1,000 years of that period. But the population dropped rapidly there after that. The population in western Japan remained quite low (about 10 people per 100 square kilometers, per 1,000 years) throughout the Jomon period, and grew very little. On the other hand, in northern Japan the population grew slowly but steadily for most of the period but only reached a level of about 70-100 people per 100 square kilometers measured across the 1,000 years in Middle Jomon, and stayed close to that level through the rest of the Jomon period.

The Jomon ENVIRONMENT was roughly like that of today, with a temperate forest of mixed broadleaf desiduous trees in the north and a subtropical forest of broadleaf evergreen trees in the west from the Kanto Plain around Tokyo to Kyushu. The cold temperate forest in the far north included large numbers of conifers. Oaks were abundant everywhere, and walnuts and chestnuts were often common. During the Early Jomon period, the sea transgressed over much of the coastal lowlands, extending far up the Ara River north of Tokyo, almost to the present city of Kumagaya. The resulting tidal flats were rich in molluscs. The Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of northeastern Japan were extremely rich in fish. Salmon spawned in the rivers in much of northern Japan. And sea mammals inhabited the waters in much of the north, especially in Hokkaido.

Jomon VILLAGES are often said to be laid out with the conical thatched dwellings in a circular or horseshoe-shaped pattern, with an open plaza in the center. These settlements are thought to have had 5-10 or more dwellings in use at any one time. Such villages did exist in some regions and at some times, but they are not representative of the typical Jomon settlement site. The typical site contained only a few dwellings with no apparent pattern to their distribution. Some settlements had only one dwelling. The recently famous Sannai Maruyama site in Aomori is unique and not one that can be generalized to the whole of the Jomon culture.

It is clear in the literature that Japanese archaeologists assume that the Jomon culture was co-extensive with the present national boundaries of Japan, exclusive of southern Okinawa, that everything within Japan during these ten millenniums was Jomon but nothing in Korea or Russian Primorye belonged to this culture. The Jomon culture, however, was far too varied to include everything in the Japanese islands under the same cultural name while excluding the contemporary cultures in Korea and Primorye. If we exclude the cultures in Korea and Primorye, then we should also exclude some of the regional Jomon cultures in the Japanese islands. It is highly unlikely that a prehistoric forager culture would be co-extensive with the national boundaries of a modern state, and Japan's present national boundaries are far from what were its national boundaries just 150 years ago. We are probably stuck with the Jomon-equal-Japan concept of that culture's geographical distribution, but this concept does not accurately reflect reality.

April 21, 2009
American typology, or types of types:
American archaeologists construct artifact types differently according to the purpose of the typology. The common types are formal (morphological, based on shape), functional (use), stylistic (identity of makers), and temporal (time, chronology). There are vast numbers of publications dealing with typology and types, and the concept of type and the theory of typology, in the American archaeological literature; this is a well discussed topic there. (see: Thomas, 1998, pp. 235ff)

Japanese typology:
Japanese archaeologists devote a lot of effort and publication to artifact types, but very little to the concepts of type and typology. Many of their artifact typologies seem to mix the types of types from American archaeology, for example having formal, functional and stylistic types mixed together in what is seen by them as a single typological scheme.

Jomon pottery typology is probably the best discussed typology in Japanese archaeology. The intention of this typology is isolation of very small units of time; it is a temporal typology. Consequently, a single Jomon pottery type contains vessels of many different forms, functions and styles. But these pottery types also are closely associated with specific regions of the country, making them also a type of stylistic type -- types that (are assumed to) identify groups of people who recognized themselves as members of a specific group separate from other similar groups.

Basic Process:
The first step is to isolated all pots that are clearly associated in time. This involves closed study of both vertical and horizontal stratigraphy. Vertical stratigraphy is the standard approach that assumes that things later in time are also shallower in depth in the excavation. In Japan, shellmounds are the best for this purpose, followed by the fill of dwelling pits and cave deposits. Horizontal stratigraphy is overlapping dwelling pits and smaller pits containing pottery or potsherds. Seriation is also used, but informally.

The second step is to identify all of the attributes of the pots that are together in time, isolating groups of attributes that identify smaller and smaller slices of time. Obviously, many attributes will also be present on other pot types that are younger or older in a developing sequence, or even on pots that have no genetic relationship to pots of the particular type being looked at. What is important is the total cluster, not individual attributes. And the type concept considers whole pots rather than potsherds, although the attributes of potsherds in the collection are also taken into consideration.

Results (the Actual Types):
There are broad types, such as Moroiso or Katsuzaka or Kasori E. These types were identified early in the history of Japanese archaeology, and they get their names from the sites where they were first identified, such as Moroiso, Katsuzaka and Kasori E (from location E at the Kasori Shellmound). These types can be seen as stylistic types as well as temporal types. With more excavation, archaeologists were able to see that these types spanned considerable time and had changes in form and style over time. The archaeologists then added shredouts to show this, such as Moroiso a, b and c, or Katsuzaka I, II and III, or Kasori E Ia, Ib, II, III and IV. (This is where the Jomon pottery types were when I entered Japanese archaeology in the late 1960s.) In recent years archaeologists have produced even more detailed temporal types for the Jomon pottery. For example, the 4 Katsuzaka types have been divided into 12 subtypes, and the 4 Kasori E types have been divided into 11 subtypes. These types and subtypes are now being dated as closely as possible to form a detailed chronology of Jomon pottery types, and of the other kinds of artifacts and features associated with those types and subtypes.

Uses of the Typology:
The Jomon pottery types have several uses in Japanese archaeology. They provide a time sequence where stratigraphy is missing. The dated types provide a chronology of Jomon history. The types are used to identify cultural regions and cultural areas, and are thought to identify peoples. And types (represented by one or a few sherds or a whole pot) that are out of area are used to align local sequences with each other and to suggest connections between different groups of Jomon people.


  • Habu, Junko. (2004). Ancient Jomon Japan. UK: Cambridge University Press. (text 262 pp.; references 55 pp.)

  • Keally, Charles T. (1999). Middle Jomon Pottery Chronology in Kanto. Available at: http://www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/Chronologies/kanto-midjomon.html

  • Kidder, J. Edward. (1968). Prehistoric Japanese Arts: Jomon Pottery. Palo Alto: Kodansha International.

  • Kobayashi, Tatsuo, ed., & Ogawa Sadahiro, photography. (1989). Jomon Doki Taikan [Collection of Jomon Pottery]. Shogakukan, vols. I~IV. (¬—Ñ’B—Yi•ÒWjA¬ì’‰”ŽiŽB‰ejw“ꕶ“yŠí‘åŠÏx¬ŠwŠÙ1989AI~IVB)

  • Kuroo, Kazuhisa, Kobayashi Ken'ichi, and Nakayama Shinji. (1995). Tama Kyuryo-Musashino Daichi o Chushin to Shita Jomon Jidai Chuki no Jiki Settai [Defining Phases for Middle Jomon in the Tama Hills and Musashino Upland]. Shinpojiumu Jomon Chuki Shuraku Kenkyu no Shinchihei -- Happyo Yoshi-Shiryo [Symposium New Horizons in the Study of Middle Jomon Settlements -- Papers and Materials]. Tokyo: Jomon Chuki Shuraku Kenkyu Gurupu & Utsukidai Chiku Kokogaku Kenkyukai [Middle Jomon Settlements Research Group & Utsukidai Area Archaeological Research Society], pp. 1-21.

  • Thomas, David Hurst. (1998). Archaeology. (3rd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

The following are some useful references in English on the Jomon Period.

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