The hunter-gather’s tool kit

The Jomon toolkit (Kawasaki City Museum)JOMON LITHICS (STONE TOOLS) AT THE KAWASAKI CITY MUSEUMThe artefacts were excavated and dated to around 5,000 years ago (Collection of KAWASAKI CITY MUSEUM) .

Tools were important to the Jomon hunter-gatherer since he needed them to catch or acquire his food and then sometimes to process them. Depending on where he lived, his lithic tool kit was distinctive.

For example, if he lived in western Japan, on the other hand, his tool kit would have included grinding rocks, grinding slabs, querns, crescent shaped chipped stone axes, two types of stone sinkers. These were the tools for harvesting and processing the acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, etc. as well root and rhizomes he dug up. 

The Jomon gatherer needed for his essential tool kit his stone axe which was used for digging up yam tubers and other root and rhizome vegetables like kudzu(Pueraria lobata). Then he needed grinding or pitted stones and grinding slabs, stamp-shaped tools –  for processing the foods gathered to turn them into edible foods. 

Grinding implements had an especially important role in the prehistoric tool kit – its invention resulted in the dramatic increase in human food supply. Many wild grass seeds which had previously been inedible in their raw state became the source of food when grinding could make them edible. Since Paleolithic times before, grinding implements had consisted of a roundish stone which was held in the hands and a larger hollowed stone for a bed stone. The hollowness is necessary for creating efficient impact and to prevent grain from falling off the stone.

Jomon stone axe Stone axe excavated from Kawasaki City(Kawasaki City Museum)

Had he lived in north eastern Japan from Hokkaido and the Pacific coast of Tohoku, his tool kit might have contained stemmed scrapers, flake scrapers, stone awls (a long sharp spike),  one-piece anchor and composite fishhooks and a very distinctive and an amazing tool, the toggle harpoon head.

 kawasaki-city-museum-120-fishhooks.jpg Fishhooks (Kawasaki City Museum)

For the Jomon fisherman, the tool kit would likely also have included fishhooks, harpoons, needles made of deer antler bone, line, float, spears, nets, pumice floats, stone sinkers, knives for cutting ropes and for processing the catch. Not forgetting the boat and paddle, of course.

Jomon hunters made many different types of arrowheads. The Jomon fisherfolk are particularly famous for their fishhooks and toggle-headed harpoons that the Jomon hunters used to catch large fish such as bonito and tuna, and sea mammals with.

harpoonheads.jpg Harpoon heads picture by Heritageofjapan Harpoon heads 

The toggle-headed harpoon was especially innovative and is considered state-of-the-art technology – for prehistoric times that is.  The earliest discovered toggle harpoon dates to the Initial Jomon period.After the togglehead struck the whale or other target, the shaft fell off and the harpoon head rotated sideways with the line and float attached. In its rotated position, the harpoon point was less likely to be dislodged as the injured whale takes off. The line and float would help the hunters keep track of where it was heading. Few whales were lost by this ancient but effective method. To see a diagram of how the toggle harpoon works, click here.

The prehistoric hunting method is superior even to modern whaling equipment today as modern equipment lose to prehistoric methods in terms of success rates in retrieving their targets.

The toggle harpoon-head is considered one of the oldest cultural and technological achievements of mankind. The toggle head’s two key development centres being the Japanese archipelago and the Bering Strait region – with the Jomon’s being the earliest recorded use.

For the Jomon hunter-gatherer living in the coastal lowlands of the Kanto and Tokai districts of central Japan, he would have needed a tool kit that helped him to fish in the bay or estuaries where he lived. He would have used old reused bits of pottery as sinkers for net fishing. His tool kit would have included stone tools such as arrow heads (also called projectile points), polished stone axes, and bone and antler spear heads for hunting for fish and forest animals.

 netandstonesinkers.jpg net and stone sinkers picture by Heritageofjapan Fishing net and stone sinkers

While earlier tribes that came before the Jomon people had crude stone tools such as stone axes, the Jomon people had to develop more skilful tools to increase their chances of success at hunting when many of the larger animals became extinct due to over-hunting. One of the ways they did this was to invent the bow and arrow.

axeandbow.jpg Jomon axe and bow picture by Heritageofjapan Stone axe and bow from the late Jomon period

Archaeologists have recovered many of the bows and arrowheads at excavated Jomon sites. The shape, design and material of these arrowheads are clues that allow archaeologists to tell where and when they were made.  If he lived deep inland or along the Sea of Japan, his stone tools would likely have been a combination of those found western and eastern Japan. Click here to see a glossary and pictures of some of these tools.

At a deer and boar hunting site at Godo, about a hundred stone tools were recovered. These tools used for processing the plants and animals caught included only a few small triangular arrowheads, a few hafted ishisaji scrapers, a number of steep scrapers and cores. There were many chipped and ground axe or adz blades, but the most common stone tools were handy sized grinding stones, nether stones or anvils – tools used for crushing and grinding of plant foods that were added to the meat stews.    

Other common tools the hunter-gatherer might have needed included – knivesadzesmicroblades, awls, pebble tools, stone mortars, net sinkers, ornaments. 

Life without the stone tool kit was unthinkable whether for the Jomon hunter, gatherer or fisherman. The first material chosen was stone because it was readily available and harder than bone. The stone tool was so important that there existed a thriving trade in stone tools in a trading network that stretched more than 3,000 kilometers from south of the Japanese archipelago to Siberia in the north by the end of the Jomon era.

For the archaeologist, changes, differences and similarities between the tools used in different regions and over time are very significant – they tell him a lot about the social and trading networks, influence of regional groupings, about new influences that come into the Jomon society…and a whole lot more about the people themselves.



Jomon Lithics (Niigata Prefectural Museum of History website)

2 responses to “The hunter-gather’s tool kit

  1. Excellent material!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s