Home | Index Japanese Archaeology last revised:
October 14, 2002

Prehistoric Archaeological Periods
in Japan

by Charles T. Keally

Prehistoric Japan is divided into four major cultures: Palaeolithic, Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun. Each of these major cultures, or periods, is further subdivided into several subperiods (or periods). The cultural phases are almost limitless. The dates for these periods are given in uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present, except for the beginning of the Palaeolithic, which is based on other dating methods.

Palaeolithic50/35,000-13/9,500 years ago
Jomon13/9,500-2,500 years ago
Yayoi500 B.C.-A.D. 300
KofunA.D. 300-710

The JAPANESE PALAEOLITHIC is a period generally thought to be dominated by big-game hunters, although there is little direct evidence for how these people lived. Everyone agrees that there is a Late Palaeolithic in Japan, dated from about 35,000 years ago to the advent of pottery technology 13,000 to 10,000 years ago. The evidence for humans in Japan before 35,000 years ago is quite controversial.

On December 28, 1997, I had written here that "advocates claim ages up to 600,000 years for the oldest sites" in Japan. But Japan's EARLY PALAEOLITHIC and MIDDLE PALAEOLITHIC claims imploded on Sunday, November 5, 2000, when Mainichi Shimbun newspaper revealed that it had caught FUJIMURA Shin'ichi planting artifacts on the Kamitakamori site. I am posting papers on the scandal on another page. After almost two years of re-excavation of some of the sites and re-examination of the artifacts from many of the sites associated with Fujimura, the Japanese Archaeological Association concluded that none of the Fujimura materials could be used for research purposes. This affected materials from 186 sites, 33 of them excavated. Since the exposure of the hoax, a few sites dated as old as 40,000-50,000 years have been put forward, and some earlier claims for "Early Palaeolithic" sites are being looked at again by some archaeologists. But claims for sites older than 35,000 years are not yet widely accepted.

The JOMON were a dynamically adapted hunting, fishing and gathering peoples, showing great regional and temporal variation. Some regional Jomon peoples attained high levels of material and social culture, particularly in the rich temperate forests of eastern Japan. In coastal regions, especially around Tokyo Bay, Jomon people used marine molluscs and other marine resources intensively. There is growing evidence that the Jomon people tended plants, some perhaps domesticated, and minimally managed most of their resources skillfully. There is no evidence, however, that farming and domestication were important in their diet. There is also evidence that suggests to some researchers that the Jomon had a degree of aquaculture. MARINE MAMMALS were common in the Jomon diet in northern Japan, and, by the end of Middle Jomon, it is probable that some sites were occupied by people emphasizing sea-mammal hunting.

By the later part of the Jomon in western Japan, RICE FARMING began to replace the foraging way of life. Some Jomon sites in Kyushu show that these people already had paddie fields, while retaining most other characteristics of the Jomon culture. But by the middle of the last millennium B.C., the culture had changed so much, and the continental influences had become so obvious, that archaeologists recognize it as the Yayoi culture.

YAYOI began as a culture of peasant farmers. This way of life spread east, eventually reaching the northern part of the main island of Honshu; it never reached the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Through the centuries more and more continental ideas, objects and technologies arrived in the islands. Socio-elites developed, rivalries increased, and warfare occurred with greater and greater frequency. Chinese records of the 3rd century A.D. tell of warfare that perhaps led to the unification of the country -- or at least a lot of the western part of the country -- under Queen Himeko of Yamataikoku. Whatever the historical reality, Yayoi had certainly become a culture of chiefdoms or even more complex political structures.

Yayoi evolved without obvious break directly into the KOFUN culture, identified by the first appearance of keyhole-shaped mound tombs (mound tombs already existed from the Late Yayoi period or earlier). These tombs reached massive sizes in the late 4th and 5th centuries. Many other changes occurred seemingly rather suddenly around A.D. 400 -- the appearance of clay ovens in the pit-dwellings of the villagers, sue ware (stone ware) of Korean type, and other continental imports. This is the basis of Egami's HORSE-RIDER theory. There is no question that by the Middle Kofun period Japan was a nation-state. But the regional centers still seem to have had considerable independence and power, and the northeast was not yet conquered and under central control as history dawned in Japan.

The prehistoric sequence of cultures on the northern island of HOKKAIDO is somewhat different. The Late Palaeolithic seems to be the oldest finds there, and these finds extent only a little older than 20,000 years, although there are claims for Late Palaeolithic finds back to 30,000 years ago. The later finds are closely related to Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Jomon culture on Hokkaido is fairly parallel to that further south. But when Yayoi farmers were settling the country further south, foragers evolved from the Jomon, known as the Epi-jomon, occupied Hokkaido. This culture was followed inland by the Satsumon culture, a people who depended on hunting, fishing and gathering as well as farming, and on the Okhotsk coast by the Okhotsk culture from Sakhalin, a sea-mammal hunting and marine-oriented people. These latter two cultures parallel in time both the Prehistoric (Proto-historic) Kofun period and the Early Historic Nara and Heian periods to the south.

OKINAWA has yielded the only Palaeolithic skeletons in Japan, but Palaeolithic artifacts are not well identified on this southern island chain. There seems to be a gap in the archaeological record, and perhaps in the occupation of the islands, until a Jomon-like culture appears there about 6,500 years ago. Despite similarities to the Jomon, and later to the Yayoi, of the main Japanese islands, archaeologists now treat the Okinawan cultures under a different scheme, called the Shellmound Culture. This reflects both the very different type of adaptation required to live on small tropical islands and the fact that the relationships of the Okinawan prehistoric cultures to the Jomon and Yayoi do not appear to be all that strong. The Earliest, Early and Middle Shellmound Cultures are contemporary with Early to Latest Jomon on the main islands. The end of the Middle Shellmound Culture and the early and middle phases of the Late Shellmound Culture are roughly contemporary with the Yayoi Period on the main islands.

The following are some useful general publications in English on Japanese prehistory.

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