Gone fishing!

Saltingdryingfishdugouts.jpg Salting fish picture by Heritageofjapan 

Jomon people drying their fish (Panel at the Tokoro Archaeological Center)    

It’s springtime back in prehistoric times… if you were a boy and if you weren’t out hunting deer, chances are you’d be fishing! 


Inland, the mountain streams and rivers in Japan teemed with fishes…salmon, trout spawning in the spring. The Jomon people were able to catch large harvests of fish daily by setting traps with their willow baskets or brush weirs in the mountain streams or in estuaries and on tidal flats.

River weir

River weir

Jomon people living in bays and coastal areas dived so regularly that they developed bony ear mechanisms (like prehistoric divers elsewhere in the world).  

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Jomon fishhooks (Collection of Kawasaki City Museum; Copyright Kawagoe) 

During the summer, the Jomon people fished intensively all along the coast, mostly in shallow inlets and water zones using fishing hooks and nets. They caught small schools of fishes of as sardines, halfbeak and horsemackerel and many other types of fish with their nets.

Many dugout canoes have been found from the Early Jomon era. These had been used to go to sea. They also caught black snapper, red snapper, Japanese sea bass and flatfishes. But being able to go out to open sea meant being able to bring home catches of larger fishes like tuna, salmon and sea mammals. Particularly in the north of Japan, deep-sea fish such as tuna, bonito and salmon or trout were important food resources for the Jomon people. Other species of fishes caught include eel, the Japanese flounder, sea perch, red sea bream, black porgy, herring, scorpian fish, mullet, bartailed flathead, brutal moray, opal eye, mackerel, horsemackerel, parrotfish and shark.

Sea mammals such as the whale, dolphin and other sea mammals, were very important resources to certain coastal communities. The Jomon fisherfolk went out to open sea, surrounding the dolphins, then driving them ashore in their small boats. The Godo site excavated finds in Chiba prefecture showed that Jomon fishermen were able to pull in enormous harvests during fishing season using only a few boats and nets. 

And it was in some coastal areas that were right beside the Pacific ocean, where the Jomon hunters developed new advanced fishing techniques and tools that allowed them to fish in the open sea.  The Mawaki site in Ishikawa prefecture was such a site, it lies at the entrance of the Toyama Bay. It was a Jomon dolphin processing and butchering site where 90% of its midden remains were dolphin (286 for the Jomon period).

Studies of other midden sites (the Asahi shell midden in Toyama Prefecture, the Natagiri cave in Chiba Prefecture and the Irie shell midden in Hokkaido) show between 7 to 21 dolphins were caught during each expedition. It is thought that the dolphins were sometimes cut up and the catch shared amongst the participants or neighboring settlements.

The custom of sharing of dolphin meat with nearby settlements must have brought goodwill and mutual aid advantages for the community and network. The Jomon people dried or smoked the meat which was traded over a wide area.

Fishing for sea mammals however, like whales or dolphins required tremendous hunting skill and knowledge of animal behavior. Dolphins, such as Pacific White-sided dolphins, for example, were very agile and clever in their groups, and evaded capture easily.  Nets could not be used for these dolphins, only thrusting type spears and harpoons. 

For this purpose, the Jomon hunter’s bundle of tools included stone spear and arrowhead points, fishhooks, harpoons, line, float, spears, nets, pumice floats, stone sinkers, and needles made of deer antler bone, knives for cutting ropes and for processing the catch. The boat and paddle, were important tools of course. The Jomon fisherfolk are particularly famous for their fishhooks and toggle-headed harpoons that the Jomon hunters used to catch fish and sea mammals with.

The toggle-headed harpoon especially is considered state-of-the-art technology, for prehistoric times.  The toggle-headed harpoon was especially innovative. 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.

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 were known to be the Japanese archipelago and the Bering Strait region (who were possibly introduced to it by northeastern Indian people in Newfoundland and Labrador) – with Jomon toggle artifacts being the earliest recorded use.

harpoonheads.jpg Harpoon heads picture by Heritageofjapan 

Harpoon head (Collection of Kawasaki City Museum; Copyright Kawagoe) 

The Jomon fisherman who fished in the coastal lowlands of the Kanto and Tokai districts of central Japan, would have needed tools to help him fish in the sea, bay or estuaries but also to process the catches. He would have used old reused bits of pottery as sinkers for net fishing. He would also have had axes or adzes, grinding stones, pounding stones, anvils, flaked stone scrapers and of course pottery for cooking and storage.

News photo

Page from history: A picture scroll depicts traditional whaling at the Taiji Whaling Museum in the famous Wakayama Prefecture whaling town. KYODO

The fishing activities and practices were passed down over generations, the fish diet remaining strong in modern Japan today.  

Sources and references:

Old Berring harpoon (Arctic Studies Center)



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