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Expected to be the next location to be inscribed on the World Heritage List: Let’s learn about “Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan”!

Travel

ReleaseJuly 2, 2021

In May 2021, the UNESCO Advisory Board announced its recommendation that the “Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido, Northern Tohoku, and other Regions” are appropriate to be registered as a World Heritage Site. Therefore, this group of sites is expected to be registered as a World Cultural Heritage Site at the World Heritage Committee meeting scheduled to be held in July.
Some readers will looking forward to visiting this future world heritage site for their next trip, but probably have some questions about the site, such as “When was the Jomon period?” and “What can I expect to see there?” Let’s check it out before “Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido, Northern Tohoku, and other Regions” get formally registered!

What is the Jomon period?

In Japanese history, the period after the Paleolithic period and before the Yayoi period, when full-scale rice cultivation began, is called the “Jomon period.” It started about 15,000 years ago and lasted for more than 10,000 years. In the Paleolithic period, the weather was cold and people lived a nomadic life mainly by hunting and gathering. Then, at the start of the Jomon period, people started having a more settled way of living with hunting, gathering, and fishing.
Around the transition from the Paleolithic period to the Jomon period, climatic warming progressed with some periods of large fluctuations between warm and cold temperatures. It is said that about 12,000 years ago, the sea level had risen to the current level and the ocean penetrated inland areas. With an increasing number of forests with deciduous broadleaf trees bearing various edible nuts and relatively smaller-sized animals living in the forests, such as boars and deer, people underwent a major transition from a nomadic lifestyle in search of prey to a settled lifestyle with villages.

Sannai Maruyama Site
Sannai Maruyama Site (Aomori Prefecture) *The buildings are replicas.
Source: JOMON ARCHIVES (https://jomon-japan.jp/archives)


Features of the Jomon period

“Jomon,” which is the origin of the name “Jomon period,” refers to patterns created with cords impressed on clay pots. Such pottery is called “Jomon pottery.” Many people may think of flame-motif pottery with a flare-shaped 3D decoration as typical Jomon pottery, but the pottery has numerous variations depending on the Jomon phase and area.

Excavated from Choshichiyachi Shell Midden in Hachinohe City
Early Jomon (about 8,000 years ago)
(Excavated from Choshichiyachi Shell Midden in Hachinohe City, Aomori Prefecture)
Source: JOMON ARCHIVES (https://jomon-japan.jp/archives)

Excavated from Oyu Stone Circles in Kazuno City
Late Jomon period (about 4,000 to 3,500 years ago)
(Excavated from Oyu Stone Circles in Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture)
Source: JOMON ARCHIVES (https://jomon-japan.jp/archives)

Excavated from Korekawa Site in Hachinohe City
Final Jomon period (about 3,000 to 2,400 years ago)
(Excavated from Korekawa Site in Hachinohe City, Aomori Prefecture)
Source: JOMON ARCHIVES (https://jomon-japan.jp/archives)

In addition to their distinctive pottery, people had a lifestyle mainly based on hunting and gathering using tools made from stones, animal bones, and shells. From past excavations all around Japan, plants (such as nuts), fish and shellfish, and animal bones were found, which indicates that people in the Jomon period had a productive life skillfully utilizing the bounty of nature.


Main points of “Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido, Northern Tohoku, and other Regions”

This group of prehistoric sites consists of 17 sites in Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate, and Akita prefectures. Through these sites, we can learn the developmental process of the people of the Jomon period from the beginning of settlement, based on gathering, fishing, and hunting, to the maturation, over more than 10,000 years. This was the point most highly evaluated in the selection process of new candidates for the World Heritage List. These sites also contain other significant remains, such as graves, mounds used as a ritual/ceremonial space, stone circles, and clay figurines. By exploring these sites, we can get a glimpse into the complex spiritual culture of a long-ago time when people venerated ancestors and nature.

Sannai Maruyama Site
Sannai Maruyama Site (Aomori Prefecture) *The buildings are replicas.
Source: JOMON ARCHIVES (https://jomon-japan.jp/archives)

For example, Sannai Maruyama Site in Aomori Prefecture, where not only dwellings but also large-sized pit houses and long buildings with thick pillars and graves were found to be systematically located. It is considered to have been a large-scale base settlement. There are many hints that allow understanding of the people’s way of life at that time. In addition, the large-scale mounds and more than 2,000 unearthed clay figurines, which is the largest number in Japan, suggest that rituals and rites were regularly and continuously held.

Sannai Maruyama Site
Sannai Maruyama Site
At Sannai Maruyama Site, the buildings are reconstructed based on assumptions. With these, it is easy to see how the area must have looked, allowing anyone to enjoy it.


Clay figurines, called “dogu,” are small human-shaped clay figures of various kinds, including 3D figures and 2D figures. Goggle-eyed dogu (shakoki-dogu) with a characteristic design of the eyes are considered the most representative dogu. This one was found in Kamegaoka Burial Site in Aomori Prefecture.
Goggle-eyed dogu
Goggle-eyed dogu (excavated at Kamegaoka Burial Site in Tsugaru City, Aomori Prefecture)
Source: ColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)

In addition, the group of sites also includes Odai Yamamoto Site, where the oldest clay pottery from about 13,000 years ago was excavated, as well as the “Oyu Stone Circles” of the late Jomon, thought to be used for religious or other ritualistic purposes.

Oyu Stone Circles
Oyu Stone Circles
Oyu Stone Circles (Akita Prefecture)
Source: JOMON ARCHIVES (https://jomon-japan.jp/archives)

Hokkaido and Northern Japan still places of intact, abundant nature with mountains, lakes, and the ocean. Through these sites, we can see that the lives of the people in the Jomon period coexisted with nature, with the “lifestyle” gradually adjusted to environmental changes. As a result, I believe, people succeeded in establishing and maintaining viable settlements based on gathering, fishing, and hunting over a long period of more than 10,000 years. We are now facing various challenges, including natural and manmade disasters, natural environmental changes, and sustainable utilization of resources. The lifestyle of the people in the Jomon period may provide us with useful hints on how to deal with these challenges. Enjoy your trip and imagine the life of people in pre-historic days!


*The information herein is as of June 2021.



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