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Monday, February 09, 2004

Japanese Roots

Jared Diamond

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Relating to the Rich Life of Hunter/Gatherers

The prejudice that islanders are supposed to learn from superior continentals wasn't the sole reason that
record-breaking Japanese pottery caused such a shock. In addition, those first Japanese potters were clearly hunter-gatherers, which also violated established views. Usually only sedentary societies own pottery: what nomad wants to carry heavy, fragile pots, as well as weapons and the baby, whenever time comes to shift camps. Most sedentary societies elsewhere in the world arose only with the adoption of agriculture. But the Japanese environment is so productive that people could settle down and make pottery while still living by hunting and gathering. Pottery helped those Japanese hunter-gatherers exploit their environment rich food resources more than 10,000 years before intensive agriculture reached Japan.

Much ancient Japanese pottery was decorated by rolling or pressing a cord on soft clay. Because the Japanese word for cord marking is jomon, the term Jomon is applied to the pottery itself, to the ancient Japanese people who made it, and to that whole period in Japanese prehistory beginning with the invention of pottery and ending only 10,000 years later. The earliest Jomon pottery, of 12,700 years ago, comes from Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese island. Thereafter, pottery spread north, reaching the vicinity of modern Tokyo around 9,500 years ago and the northernmost island of Hokkaido by 7,000 years ago. Pottery's northward spread followed that of deciduous forest rich in nuts, suggesting that the climate-related food explosion was what permitted sedentary living.

How did Jomon people make their living? We have abundant evidence from the garbage they left behind at hundreds of thousands of excavated archeological sites all over Japan. They apparently enjoyed a well-balanced diet, one that modern nutritionists would applaud.

One major food category was nuts, especially chestnuts and walnuts, plus horse chestnuts and acorns leached or boiled free of their bitter poisons. Nuts could be harvested in autumn in prodigious quantities, then stored for the winter in underground pits up to six feet deep and six feet wide. Other plant foods included berries, fruits, seeds, leaves, shoots, bulbs, and roots. In all, archeologists sifting through Jomon garbage have identified 64 species of edible plants.

Then as now, Japan's inhabitants were among the world's leading consumers of seafood. They harpooned tuna in the open ocean, killed seals on the beaches, and exploited seasonal runs of salmon in the rivers. They drove dolphins into shallow water and clubbed or speared them, just as Japanese hunters do today. They netted diverse fish, captured them in weirs, and caught them on fishhooks carved from deer antlers. They gathered shellfish, crabs, and seaweed in the intertidal zone or dove for them. (Jomon skeletons show a high incidence of abnormal bone growth in the ears, often observed in divers today.) Among land animals hunted, wild boar and deer were the most common prey. They were caught in pit traps, shot with bows and arrows, and run down with dogs.

The most debated question about Jomon subsistence concerns the possible contribution of agriculture. Many Jomon sites contain remains of edible plants that are native to Japan as wild species but also grown as crops today, including the adzuki bean and green gram bean. The remains from Jomon times do not clearly show features distinguishing the crops from their wild ancestors, so we do not know whether these plants were gathered in the wild or grown intentionally. Sites also have debris of edible or useful plant species not native to Japan, such as hemp, which must have been introduced from the Asian mainland. Around 1000 b.c., toward the end of the Jomon period, a few grains of rice, barley, and millet, the staple cereals of East Asia, began to appear. All these tantalizing clues make it likely that Jomon people were starting to practice some slash-and-burn agriculture, but evidently in a casual way that made only a minor contribution to their diet.

Archeologists studying Jomon hunter-gatherers have found not only hard-to-carry pottery (including pieces up to three feet tall) but also heavy stone tools, remains of substantial houses that show signs of repair, big village sites of 50 or more dwellings, and cemeteries' still further evidence that the Jomon people were sedentary rather than nomadic. Their stay-at-home lifestyle was made possible by the diversity of resource-rich habitats available within a short distance of one central site: inland forests, rivers, seashores, bays, and open oceans. Jomon people lived at some of the highest population densities ever estimated for hunter-gatherers, especially in central and northern Japan, with their nut-rich forests, salmon runs, and productive seas. The estimate of the total population of Jomon Japan at its peak is 250,000 trivial, of course, compared with today, but impressive for hunter-gatherers.

With all this stress on what Jomon people did have, we need to be clear as well about what they didn 't have. Their lives were very different from those of contemporary societies only a few hundred miles away in mainland China and Korea. Jomon people had no intensive agriculture. Apart from dogs (and perhaps pigs), they had no domestic animals. They had no metal tools, no writing, no weaving, and little social stratification into chiefs and commoners. Regional variation in pottery styles suggests little progress toward political centralization and unification.

Despite its distinctiveness even in East Asia at that time, Jomon Japan was not completely isolated. Pottery, obsidian, and fishhooks testify to some Jomon trade with Korea, Russia, and Okinawa 's does the arrival of Asian mainland crops. Compared with later eras, though, that limited trade with the outside world had little influence on Jomon society. Jomon Japan was a miniature conservative universe that changed surprisingly little over 10,000 years.

To place Jomon Japan in a contemporary perspective, let us remind ourselves of what human societies were like on the Asian mainland in 400 b.c., just as the Jomon lifestyle was about to come to an end. China consisted of kingdoms with rich elites and poor commoners; the people lived in walled towns, and the country was on the verge of political unification and would soon become the world 's largest empire. Beginning around 6500 b.c., China had developed intensive agriculture based on millet in the north and rice in the south; it had domestic pigs, chickens, and water buffalo. The Chinese had had writing for at least 900 years, metal tools for at least 1,500 years, and had just invented the world 's first cast iron. Those developments were also spreading to Korea, which itself had had agriculture for several thousand years (including rice since at least 2100 b.c.) and metal since 1000 b.c.

With all these developments going on for thousands of years just across the Korea Strait from Japan, it might seem astonishing that in 400 b.c. Japan was still occupied by people who had some trade with Korea but remained preliterate stone-tool-using hunter-gatherers. Throughout human history, centralized states with metal weapons and armies supported by dense agricultural populations have consistently swept away sparser populations of hunter-gatherers. How did Jomon Japan survive so long?

To understand the answer to this paradox, we have to remember that until 400 b.c., the Korea Strait separated not rich farmers from poor hunter-gatherers, but poor farmers from rich hunter-gatherers. China itself and Jomon Japan were probably not in direct contact. Instead Japan 's trade contacts, such as they were, involved Korea. But rice had been domesticated in warm southern China and spread only slowly northward to much cooler Korea, because it took a long time to develop cold-resistant strains of rice. Early rice agriculture in Korea used dry-field methods rather than irrigated paddies and was not particularly productive. Hence early Korean agriculture could not compete with Jomon hunting and gathering. Jomon people themselves would have seen no advantage in adopting Korean agriculture, insofar as they were aware of its existence, and poor Korean farmers had no advantages that would let them force their way into Japan. As we shall see, the advantages finally reversed suddenly and dramatically.

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