Prehistoric Japan

Pre-Ceramic culture

It is unknown when really humans first settled on the Japanese archipelago. Belief that there was no Paleolithic occupation in Japan survived for very long, but since World War II thousands of sites have been discovered across the country, yielding a wide range of Paleolithic tools, both core tools and flake tools. It is believed that those who used these tools moved to Japan from the Asian continent. Immigration from the Korean peninsula was very much possible at one stage through land connections via present day Korea and Tsushima straits while another land connection via present day Sōya and Tsugaru straits, allowed entry to people from north-eastern Asia.

The Paleolithic Period in Japan is varyingly dated from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, although existence of Lower Paleolithic culture prior to 35,000 BCE has also been subject of argument. Nothing definite is known of the culture of the period, however it seems likely that people lived by hunting and gathering, used fire and lived in caves and pit-type dwellings. Bone or horn artifacts of usually associated with this period in other parts of the world are yet to be discovered in Japan. Lack of knowledge of pottery gives the period its name ‘the Pre-Ceramic era’.

Jōmon culture (c. 10,500 to c. 300 BCE)

Two better-recorded cultures, the Jōmon and the Yayoi followed The Pre-Ceramic era. Jōmon culture takes its name from a special type of pottery found across the archipelago. 19th-century American zoologist Edward S. Morse, discoverer of this culture, called the pottery jōmon (“cord marks”) to describe the patterns pressed into the clay. Theory that dates the period during which Jōmon pottery was used from about 10,500 BCE until about the 3rd century BCE seems quite convincing. All of the common features of Neolithic cultures across the world—advancement from chipped tools to polished tools, the manufacture of pottery, the start of agriculture and pasturage, the development of weaving, and the erection of monuments using massive stones didn’t appear during Jōmon period —the first two features were very prominent during Jōmon period, but the remaining three only appeared in succeeding Yayoi period. Jōmon is hence best described as a Mesolithic culture, while Yayoi is completely Neolithic.

The Yayoi period (c. 300 BCE–c. 250 CE)

The new Yayoi culture developed in Kyushu when the Jōmon culture was still very much undergoing development elsewhere, spread slowly eastward, overwhelming the Jōmon culture as it went, until it got to the northern districts of Honshu (the largest island of Japan). Yayoi culture derived its name from the name of the Tokyo district where, in 1884, the discovery of pottery of this type first drew the attention of scholars. Yayoi pottery was fired at considerably higher temperatures compared to Jōmon pottery and was turned on wheels. There is evidence of rice cultivation during this period. Art of weaving had developed. Dead were buried in heavy stone coffins or large clay urns.

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