Stone Age Japan

by Michael Hoffman

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.

The name “Jomon” means “cord-marked,” and describes a decorative flourish that adorned their earliest pottery — and their latest, representing an artistic continuity of 10,000 years.

That common trait aside, Jomon pottery presents a dazzling variety of shapes, surface treatment and artistic motifs. “It roams into lavish conceptions of form and decoration probably unsurpassed in any time or place,” enthused Scottish archaeologist Neil Munro in “Prehistoric Japan” (1908).

You have to remind yourself, as you admire it, that the technology involved was almost inconceivably primitive. Each article was shaped by hand and hardened in outdoor bonfires. The potter’s wheel and the kiln were undreamed of. In use in Mesopotamia as early as 3500 B.C., they took thousands of years to reach Japan. Their use is one of the features that sets Yayoi apart from Jomon.

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. Cro-Magnon artists painted Ice Age animals — hunters’ prey — on cave walls. 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. It was unearthed at a Sub-earliest Jomon site in Mie Prefecture. Thousands of years pass with much production but little progress, and then, more or less suddenly, there is a change. By 3500 B.C. we discern a heightened awareness of the face and its peculiar nuances. Eyes, nose and mouth, the latter generally open — conveying what? — are apparently no longer beside the point. There is an urgency reflected in some of these faces; they seem almost to be trying to tell us something, and to be distressed at our inability to understand.

Centuries pass; the faces grow more lifelike but less human. One looks strikingly like a cat. Another is oddly reminiscent of a Buddhist bodhisattva, her head rising to a domelike protuberance, her palms joined as though in prayer. 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 B.C.), 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; her heart-shaped face, with its empty eyes and half-open mouth, seem unequal to expressing the mystery of it all. She stands 27 cm tall, making her rather large (the largest dogu of all is 45 cm tall and seems to be wearing flared trousers). Venus’ hair is most elaborately coiffed, a fitting home for the lacquered combs found in profusion at Jomon sites everywhere.

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. The mood is deeply tender. This is rare. Fertility is the theme common to all Jomon art — and yet, writes Kunihiko Fujinuma in “Jomon no Dogu (Jomon Clay Figurines),” “although there are many dogu of women with swollen bellies, of mother and child together only two have been found.”

Latest of all, towards Jomon’s close beginning around 1000 B.C., the faces grow increasingly strange, as if realistic portraiture, so laboriously achieved, has at last been cast aside as something outgrown. Eyes are large circles. They are more like goggles than eyes.

What does it all mean?

Hypotheses abound — and will have to suffice, in the absence of certainties. Physical remains make us want to, goad us to try to, but hardly render us able to penetrate even the surface thoughts of a people so remote from us. “We must never forget,” writes Takura Izumi in “Jomon Doki Shutsugen (The Advent of Jomon Pottery),” “that modern man,” accustomed to manipulating nature through agriculture and the other civilized arts, “cannot possibly grasp the intimate feelings of people who lived by hunting and gathering.”

The potters and artists of Jomon were probably women. Men’s work was hunting and fishing. Women did everything else, including the most important thing of all — bringing forth new life.

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.

A late-19th century conjecture had it that their purpose was to cure illness or injury; the figure would have been made in the likeness of the sufferer and broken, to drive the evil spirit away. Broken they certainly are, as modern archaeologists find them — but is the breakage the work of time or of Jomon shamans? Some experts say one, some the other.

The notion foundered on other grounds. For example, there are almost no male dogu. Did only women get sick? Only pregnant women?

And if the figurines were curative, why did their production die out with Jomon? Why are there no Yayoi dogu?

Could it be that, radiant with meaning to hunter-gatherers living in groups too loosely organized to be called governed societies, the dogu were irrelevant to Yayoi cultivators ruled by chieftains or (as a contemporary Chinese chronicle styled them) “kings”?

“The Jomon world swarmed with spirits,” writes Fujinuma. He does not use the word “gods.” Spirits lack the identity or authority of gods. They are anarchic, amorphous, indefinable, perhaps even homeless. “Possibly,” Fujinuma speculates, “a spirit would be pleased to lodge in a form that resembled itself” — and in so doing confer upon her devotees the one gift they craved, the gift on which life depended, the one thing that mattered — not production, not happiness, not comfort, not victory in battle, not longevity, but fertility — fertility in all its forms, human, animal and vegetal. 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.

And they were effective. Japan was, by and large, kind to the Jomon. It fed them for 10,000 years without imposing on them the rigors of agriculture and government.

In return, there is a kindly strain in the Jomon that reflects the relative benignity of their environment. The potential savagery of the human heart in primitive conditions is limitless. Izumi records an ancient belief in southern China that a mother who ate the flesh of her firstborn would be especially fecund thereafter — and in fact, he writes, pottery has been found bearing traces of human infant bones mixed with fish bones. No comparable horror seems to have infected the Jomon.

Another scourge the Jomon apparently escaped, or shunned, is war. “Of the more than 5,000 skeletons excavated from Jomon sites,” writes historian William Wayne Farris in “Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures,” “only about 10 give evidence of violent death.” The corresponding figures for Yayoi, he says, are 1,000 skeletons and more than 100 violent deaths.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space” (Printed Matter Press, 2008). “The Naked Ear,” his new serial novel, starts today at www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com