Resketching Japan's Prehistory
June 22, 1999
Excavation crew members at the Ikenai site dig for clues of their Stone-Age predecessors' lifestyle. (Akita Prefectural Cultural Assets Research Center)
The Jomon period in Japan, characterized by a widespread neolithic culture that produced pottery decorated with cord marks (jomon), was long thought to have begun about 12,000 years ago. The result of a recent study, however, has pushed this date back by 4,500 years. What is more, excavations at an inland site have uncovered evidence that smoked fish and homemade wine were being consumed there, suggesting that Jomon life was less primitive than had been assumed. These discoveries have prompted a major reassessment of Japan's distant past.
Innovative Dating Method Does the Trick
For many decades the method most commonly employed to date artifacts was radiocarbon dating, which involves measuring the amount of carbon-14--a radioactive substance that decays at a stable rate, thus serving as a fairly accurate "clock" for judging the age of an artifact. This method, however, results in a significant margin of error. In the 1990s a new method was developed, mainly by U.S. and European scientists, to adjust this carbon date using records obtained from tree or coral rings. This new technique, known as radiocarbon calibration, was used to date the Odai Yamamoto potsherds--the first time it was applied in Japan to artifacts more than 10,000 years old.
Also at Ikenai, elderberry and wild grape and strawberry seeds have been excavated in an area where liquor was apparently squeezed from the fermented fruits. Picture Jomon people sipping wine with an appetizer of smoked fish: Would it be too fanciful to suppose that, far from the life of primitive subsistence on hunting and gathering that archeologists have long accorded them, these ancients were connoisseurs of taste leading fairly plentiful lives?
Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.