The Majesty of Jōmon Pottery

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Exquisite pottery on display at the Yamanashi Prefectural Archeological Museum.

I recently noticed a rather unassuming museum perched above the Chuo Expressway which runs through Koshu City, Yamanashi. Inside the museum I found prehistoric pottery that defied my notions of what humans were capable of at the time. I knew nothing of the Jōmon* people before entering the museum, but this discovery has led me deep down an internet rabbit hole that I still haven’t fully emerged from. Below is my feeble attempt to make sense of this recent discovery.

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This whimsical vessel is on display at the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum.

There is very little of Jōmon history that is conclusive, but recent advances in genetic analyses have revealed much more than was previously known. It appears that the ancestors of the Jōmon people arrived in the Japanese archipelago at least 38,000 years ago via a land bridge from North East Asia** (modern-day Siberia). This would time their arrival in Japan to about the time modern humans began migrating to North America via the Bering Strait land bridge. It also seems likely that they were following migrating megafauna like woolly mammoths when they crossed the land bridge to Japan.

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This vessel was photographed at the Shakadō Museum of Jōmon Culture before renovations in 2020. The designs on this pot seem far too sophisticated for a Stone Age culture of hunter-gatherers. Instead of offering a window on the past, these pots raise fundamental questions about how we perceive ancient cultures. Picasso famously said after viewing the cave art at Lascaux, “We have invented nothing new”. Jōmon pots definitely leave the same impression.

The current understanding is that the Jōmon people were active throughout the Japanese archipelago from 14,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE.  Due to warming climatic conditions, and the rudimentary practice of planting food bearing trees and plants nearby their settlements, the Jōmon people enjoyed a relatively “sedentary” lifestyle and this era coincides with the production of the most extraordinary examples of their pottery (about 5000 years ago). This period is roughly contemporaneous with the Archaic or Early Dynastic Period of Egypt, before the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

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This interesting pot can be seen at the Hokuto City Archeological Museum.

Artistically speaking, the pottery, doki, seems too whimsical for the stone age. In my opinion, this pottery ranks up there with the cave art at Lascaux. Some of these pots were used to store and cook food, but others are far too elaborate for such use. As human remains have been discovered in some pots, it is certain that the pottery had some ritualistic significance in the lives of the Jōmon people. Dare I say, these pots may have been akin to religious art.

Today, the indigenous Ainu of Northern Japan and the Ryukyuan people of Okinawa are the most closely related to the ancient Jōmon people. Furthermore, modern Japanese share about 9% to 13% of their genome with the ancient Jōmon people, so there was clearly contact between the Jōmon people and later arrivals from the Asian mainland.

*The Japanese word jōmon, literally, straw rope pattern; is derived from the decoration on early Jōmon pottery.

**It has been theorized by some scholars that the ancestors of the Jōmon people also followed a southern route into Japan.

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