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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
At the Odai Yamamoto site in Aomori, the northernmost prefecture on Japan's main island of Honshu, 46 pottery fragments were unearthed in July 1998. Based initially on the distinguishing features of the arrowheads and other artifacts excavated from the same geological stratum, they were dated to the early Jomon period. A laboratory at Nagoya University analyzed five of these potsherds that were streaked with carbon residue--a sign that the vessels had been used to cook food--and found them to have been made some 16,500 years ago. This is one of the oldest dates for any piece of pottery discovered up to now, giving Jomon a firm footing as the world's most ancient pottery culture.

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.

Jomon Cuisine
At another Jomon site south of Odai Yamamoto, a substantial amount of fish bones have been unearthed 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from the coast. These bones, discovered at the 5,000-year-old Ikenai site in Akita Prefecture, have been found to be those of various saltwater fishes including yellowtail, flounder, mackerel, and shark. Interestingly, the parts that are usually the best preserved--the teeth, gills, and bones comprising the skull--have not turned up in the dig. Archeologists think these fish first had their heads and guts removed, then were sun-dried, smoked, or salt-cured before being transferred inland. The inhabitants of Ikenai evidently had commerce with coastal settlements.

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?

Trends in JapanEdited 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.