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Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008

Stone Age Japan

Special to The Japan Times

This story spans 10,000 years, yet presents few recognizable individuals. Here's one:

"The earliest known Jomon man," writes J. Edward Kidder Jr. in "The Cambridge History of Japan," "was uncovered in 1949 below a shell layer in the Hirasaka shell mound in Yokohama City. 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 B.C., 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 B.C. 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, and they radiate a primitive, sometimes almost grotesque beauty whose impact on first viewing is positively startling.

Jomon life was certainly short, arguably nasty — but not brutish. The Jomon people's pottery, their figurines and what little remains of their bones all tell the same tale — in dim outline, to be sure — of primeval terror soothed by primeval joy; of savagery softened by kindliness; of an unremitting consciousness of death that somehow becomes life-affirming.

Rising seas were the prologue to Jomon's emergence, as they were to Japan's.

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 — "creating," in Kidder's words, "an environment in which a distinct insular culture began to take shape."

"Insular" is the feature that first sets Jomon apart — starkly — from its roots in the vast Siberian tundra. Nomad hunters pursuing big game found themselves trapped on islands in the making, where the giant beasts — mammoth, bison, rhinoceros, north Asian horses, Naumann elephants — died out as the climate warmed and foraging territory shrank. Smaller animals took their place — boar, raccoon dogs, hares, badgers. 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 B.C."

Nature, or the spirits, were kind to them. "It appears," says Pearson, "that the (Jomon) had a wide variety of plant foods available to them in comparison with the peoples of Europe and the Near East who lived in colder and drier conditions."

Their very success as hunters, fishers and gatherers — archaeologists count some 600 types of Jomon food, including a "Jomon bread" made from eight different kinds of wild bean skins — 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 (New Stone Age) on account of their polished stone tools and pottery, Jomon people somehow resisted the typical neolithic evolution from gathering to cultivating. Whole civilizations had risen, fallen and risen again before Japanese earth was first broken, circa 300 B.C., by the iron spade. 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 too were neolithic, at least at first, but of a more progressive, more austere stamp. 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. It dates back to what is classified, somewhat misleadingly, as Earliest Jomon (circa 7500-5000 B.C.; the label was already in place when new discoveries compelled recognition of a Sub-earliest or "Incipient" Jomon period, which lasted some 5,000 years).

The Hanawadai site 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. There was no "Jomon revolution." Neither agriculture nor metal came to disturb the peace or expand the horizons. An Earliest Jomon man returning to life 4,000 years later — roughly the timespan separating us from the building of the Egyptian pyramids — would have found things pretty much as he had left them.

Some progress he would have noticed. Fireplaces had moved indoors. The pit dwellings that had housed Jomon man from the beginning were sturdier and more sheltering. Villages were larger, trade networks broader. Fish hooks and harpoons were now suitable for deep-sea fishing in dugout canoes 6 meters long. Bows were firmer, poisoned hunting arrows more deadly. Food was better and more varied, and life was somewhat easier. "Softer foods and improved tools," writes Kidder of around 3000 B.C., "spared teeth from the inordinate wear experienced by their ancestors."

Nevertheless, and despite a 10-fold-plus rise in population (to 250,000) over those 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. Fertility and death walked hand in hand.


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