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Japan’s First People: The Jomon

The Jomon Period spans from around 14,500 BCE to around 300 BCE. In the early Jomon Period, there are estimated to have been roughly 20,000 people living in the Japanese archipelago. They subsisted largely through hunting and gathering.

By the middle Jomon Period, the population exploded to around 260,000 people. At this point, they had reached a high level of cultural complexity as evidenced by their elaborate tool making and jewelry made of stone, bone, and shells. They carved boats from tree trunks and used them for fishing and traveling, though it is unclear if they used sails or paddles.

Two of the biggest technological advances created by the Jomon People were the bow and arrow and pottery. These appear to have been invented independently by the Jomon People rather than being introduced from the outside.

Pottery was discovered as far back as the early Jomon Period. In fact, the word Jomon means “rope pattern.” It refers to the unique and characteristic practice the Jomon people had of pressing rope or cord into wet clay before firing it to create a distinct textured appearance. This pottery allowed them to store food, water plants, and cook. It also allowed them to live further away from sources of water such as streams and rivers.

By the late Jomon, they had refined the longbow to a point they could reliably fire arrows up to 50 to 60 meters away. However, due to the lack of stopping power these arrows had, historians believe they tipped their arrows with a poison such as wolfsbane.

The Jomon People lived in round or rectangular houses with thatched roofs that were partially buried in the earth. These were known as “pit dwellings.” They made use of indoor fireplaces for cooking and warmth.

It is a unique occurrence in history that the Jomon people were able to have such large and permanent dwellings without relying on agriculture. Typically, hunter-gatherers are nomadic people who follow the migration of animals they rely on for food. Scientists believe the fertile soil of Japan combined with warm, favorable weather conditions meant there was an abundance of nut-bearing trees and other food sources that made agriculture unnecessary.

As the population grew, larger and larger settlements formed. This gave birth to a network of trade between these different settlements. They were able to trade resources such as fish, meat, or certain varieties of edible plants. There was even a large village with over 700 buildings that appears to have been a central trade hub for the different villages. The Jomon Period appears to have been a time of relative peace. The skeletal remains found do not indicate a high incidence of death at the hands of other humans.

By the end of the Jomon Period, the population decreased sharply to only about 76,000. This massive depopulation was likely caused by food shortages. Since Jomon society relied heavily on Japan’s abundant natural resources, this also made them susceptible to an adverse change in the climate. It is also likely that the increased population used their resources faster than nature could replenish them. Remember, they weren’t farming on any appreciable scale, just taking the bounty of the earth and waiting for nature to give them more. This reduced population set the stage for the next wave of immigrants, the Yayoi.

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