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The Jomon Culture of Hokkaido

The Jomon Culture of Hokkaido

In Hokkaido, there are more than 7,000 known archeological sites where traces of life in the Jomon period were discovered, with differences and characteristics depending on the region.
Let us look at the island of Hokkaido and its natural origins to see how these differences and characteristics came to be.

photos: Engaru Town Board of Education

Hokkaido before the Jomon Period

Hokkaido was shaped by the great activity of the Earth.
When did people first arrive on Hokkaido, and how did they live?
Let us take a look at the people who lived in Hokkaido before the Jomon period, as inferred from archeological sites in Hokkaido and considering the natural environment of the time.

Hokkaido before the Jomon Period

The oldest archaeological sites in Hokkaido can be dated back to approximately 30,000 years ago. People have been living in the area since the Paleolithic Age, before the Jomon Period.

The history of the Earth over the past million years shows that glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) periods recur in 100,000-year cycles. Around 25,000 years ago, during the coldest of the most recent ice age, glaciers in the polar regions and the northern hemisphere developed, and the sea level is thought to have been 120 meters lower than today.

As a result, Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Asian continent were connected by a land bridge, forming a large peninsula jutting out from the continent.
The cold, dry climate resulted in a natural setting similar to today’s alpine belts. With few vegetable food resources, people lived on the move, hunting and following animals such as mammoths and elk that migrated from the continent.

Characteristics of the Jomon Period

The Jomon culture came about in the shifting natural environment caused by a global rise in temperatures and spread throughout the Japanese archipelago.
Did people live a similar lifestyle throughout the Japanese archipelago, which stretches from north to south? Were there any exchanges between people as far apart as those of Hokkaido and Honshu?
Let us take a look at the lives and minds of the people of the Jomon period through the traces left behind at archeological sites.

Characteristics of the Jomon Period

The most important characteristic of the Jomon period was the realization of a sedentary lifestyle. Although we now take the sedentary lifestyle for granted, we know that for most of human history people lived on the move, chasing prey. Settlement is one of the major turning points in human history.

Globally, settlement begins when people become able to cultivate nature, farm and raise cattle, and produce and stockpile more food. The Jomon settlement is unique among other prehistoric cultures in that it was achieved without major alterations to nature, while hunting, fishing, and gathering were the basis of life.

Technology and Interactions in the Jomon Period

The Jomon people were highly skilled at applying lacquer to combs and earthenware for finishing, as well as processing hard jade to make ornaments. In particular, they made some of the world’s oldest lacquered goods, approximately 9,000 years old. Other techniques included the use of natural asphalt as an adhesive.

We also know that such lacquer, jade, and asphalt crossed the Tsugaru Strait into Hokkaido. On the other hand, obsidian and a type of greenstone were brought to Honshu from Hokkaido, indicating that there were cross-sea exchanges and trade. The obsidian was used to make arrowheads and knives, and the greenstone was used to make axes.

Hokkaido’s History After the Jomon Period

Rice cultivation was introduced from the continent to Honshu and areas further south, marking the transition to the Yayoi culture. But how did the history and culture of Hokkaido unfold?
Let us take a look at Hokkaido’s history since the Jomon period. This history was established in the context of Hokkaido’s relations with its neighboring areas.

Yayoi and Zoku-Jomon Culture

Around 3,000 years ago, rice cultivation was introduced to northern Kyushu from the east of the Asian continent and the Korean peninsula, and the Yayoi culture, accompanied by bronze and iron tools, spread throughout the Japanese archipelago. When rice cultivation reached the northern Tohoku region around 2,400 years ago, the Jomon culture came to an end. Hokkaido, however, shifted to the Zoku-Jomon culture, which continued the Jomon culture based on hunting and gathering as the basis of life. Rice cultivation did not begin in Hokkaido, not only because of the cold climate, but also because the richness of the natural environment did not require a transition to rice cultivation.

In the first half of the Zoku-Jomon culture, some areas in Hokkaido had connections with the Yayoi culture of Honshu and the northern Asian continent. In the latter half of the Zoku-Jomon culture, exchange with the Kofun culture of Honshu became more active. Then, with the influx of iron tools, stone tools fell out of use. However, it is believed that the earthenware continued to be decorated with Jomon patterns and retained traditions from the Jomon culture.