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Archaeo News 

14 December 2008
Stone Age Japan

"The earliest known Jomon man," writes J. Edward Kidder Jr. in "The Cambridge History of Japan," "was uncovered in 1949. He stood rather tall for a Jomon person: about 163 cm... X-rays of his bones show growth interruptions, interpreted as near-fatal spells of extreme malnutrition during childhood. The joints testify to early aging. Virtually unused wisdom teeth are partial evidence of a life-expectancy of about 30 years." He lived sometime between 7500 and 5000 BCE, when Japan's population was probably around 22,000.
     Jomon culture was not new even then. Its defining innovation, pottery, was already thousands of years old. It goes back to circa 10,500 BCE. It is the oldest pottery in the world, most authorities agree. A sister art was the crafting of clay dogu (figurines), some 20,000 of which have been reconstructed, shard by shard. A great many depict pregnant women.
     Rising seas were the prologue to Jomon's emergence. About 20,000 years ago, stirred by a period of cyclical global warming, oceans submerged parts of northeast Asia and made islands of the continent's rim. Nomad hunters pursuing big game found themselves trapped on islands in the making, where the giant beasts died out as the climate warmed and foraging territory shrank. Succeeding millenniums saw these new islanders relying less and less on hunting, and more on fishing and, in particular, gathering.
     Gathering stimulates, and is stimulated by, pottery. Pottery is a revolutionary technology. It permits storage, and the boiling of otherwise inedible plants. It fosters settlement. "Jomon people," writes archaeologist Richard Pearson in the International Jomon Culture Conference Newsletter, "achieved residential stability by a very early date, in comparison with other parts of the world. Villages of up to 50 people containing pit-house dwellings and storage pits date as early as 9000 BCE".
     Their very success as hunters, fishers and gatherers helps explain their failure (or disinclination) to develop agriculture beyond very occasional, very tentative experiments. "Jomon's existence in Japan for almost 10,000 years," note Kiyoshi Yamaura and Hiroshi Ushiro in the Smithsonian publication 'Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People,' "makes it one of the longest-running single traditions in the world, whose hunting-and-gathering economy was so well adapted to the environmental conditions that few economic disruptions seem to have occurred."
     Generally classed as Neolithic, Jomon people somehow resisted the typical Neolithic evolution from gathering to cultivating. Resistance endured longest on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, where the Ainu, linked by ethnologists to Jomon man with disputed degrees of consanguinity, maintained a hunting-gathering culture well into the 19th century.
     Japan's first farmers were Jomon's eventual supplanters mainland immigrants known today as the Yayoi. They brought with them another innovation apparently unknown to Jomon man: war. The oldest recognizable Jomon site is at Hanawadai in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture. The Hanawadai site dates back to circa 7500-5000 BCE and consists of five house pits about 10 meters apart. None contained a fireplace; warming and cooking fires were set outdoors. "The little band of occupants," writes Kidder, "could hardly have numbered more than 10 or 15."
     The ensuing millenniums wrought change, but the pace was glacial. Neither agriculture nor metal came to disturb the peace or expand the horizons. Despite a 10-fold-plus rise in population (to 250,000) over 4,000 years, individual life expectancy remained unaltered: 15 years at birth, 30 in the unlikely event you survived childhood. The odds were not good. A site in Aomori Prefecture has yielded burial jars for more than 880 infants six times the number of adults.
     The name "Jomon" means "cord-marked," and describes a decorative flourish that adorned their earliest pottery. Jomon pottery presents a dazzling variety of shapes, surface treatment and artistic motifs. How the leap came to be made from pots, jars, lamps and burial urns to human figures is anyone's guess. Containers are common to Neolithic cultures; ceramic sculpture is not, and Jomon's, affirms Naoaki Ishikawa, chief curator of the Otaru Museum in Hokkaido, is likely the oldest of its kind in the world. The earliest pieces are some 12,000 years old, comparable in antiquity to the Cro-Magnon cave art of France and Spain. The Jomon sculpted women, most of them visibly pregnant.
     Japan's oldest known dogu figurine, 5.8 cm tall, consists of a lump of clay representing a head mounted neckless on a lump of clay representing a torso, with only the swelling breasts to put the object in perspective and suggest a significance. Thousands of years pass with much production but little progress, and then, more or less suddenly, there is a change. By 3500 BCE we discern a heightened awareness of the face and its peculiar nuances. Centuries pass; the faces grow more lifelike but less human. One looks strikingly like a cat. Another is oddly reminiscent of a Buddhist bodhisattva. She is crouching one of a number in that posture; the posture of childbirth, scholars believe.
     One figure, unearthed in Nagano Prefecture and dating from the Middle Jomon period (circa 3500-2400 BCE), is famous as the so-called Jomon Venus. Her swollen belly and ample hips are in odd contrast to her rather perfunctory breasts. She is fertility personified and she stands 27 cm tall. Roughly contemporary with Venus, dug up in Tokyo, is a stunning creation. A mother (her head, alas, lost) sits cradling an infant, her breasts hovering protectively over the child. Latest of all, towards Jomon's close beginning around 1000 BCE, the faces grow increasingly strange, as if realistic portraiture, so laboriously achieved, has at last been cast aside as something outgrown.
    The potters and artists of Jomon were probably women. Men's work was hunting and fishing. Did the dogu, even the more realistic ones, depict living women? Do their tattoolike markings, their hair styles, their facial expressions and body proportions, help us visualize the Stone Age inhabitants of Japan as they really were? Or were they idealized beings, spirits? Either way, they were evidently objects of reverence. An agricultural society can labor for fertility. Gatherers have no recourse but to pray for it. The female figurines of Jomon may best be seen as tangible prayers.

Source: The Japan Times (14 December 2008)

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