Village life, Aota site, Niigata prefecture (National Museum of Japanese History)
Settlement size: did the Jomon people live in small hamlets or in big villages?
During most of the Jomon era, people lived in small pit houses or dwellings no larger than 4 meters that were grouped in hamlets of about 5 pit houses. However, a few large settlements numbering up to 50 or 60 buildings have existed since Early Jomon days, as early as 9,000 BC. In eastern Japan, the hunter-gatherer population peaked and the largest settlements appeared during the Middle Jomon era. But in western Japan, settlements began to increase in size only from the Middle to Late Jomon period.
The most famous of the large Jomon villages is Sannai Maruyama in Aomori prefecture from which 700 pit dwellings, long houses with thatched roofs, raised-floor buildings (very likely these were storehouses), grave pits, burial jars and stone circles were found. However, this extremely large village, Sannai Maruyama, is an exception to the typically smaller villages seen throughout the land.
Reconstructed Model of the Sannai Maruyama village in Aomori prefecture
Experts are almost certain from the many precious items such as lacquered and exotic goods like jade and amber ornaments found on the site, that Sannai Maruyama was a large trading center.
Sannai Maruyama was located at head of Aomori Bay. Large numbers of people likely arrived from all over Japan and from across the seas to trade by pre-arrangement and at a pre-appointed time of the year.
Despite its large size for a village, Sannai Maruyama is still thought to have been only a seasonal camp that was not occupied throughout the whole year.
Some of the larger settlements, include the Miharada Site in Gumma Prefecture (from the Middle Jomon) with 333 dwellings occupied over several hundred years; the Nishida site in Iwate prefecture (Late Jomon).
Shokado was another very large Final Jomon site that was a site that specialized in making clay figurines and other crafts. Most of the large settlements were found to be seasonal special purpose settlements or temporary basecamps. To see a diorama of the Satsukari village in Hokkaido from the Final Jomon era, click here.
However, the bigger Jomon settlements are considered to be unusually large compared to the hunter-gathering settlements elsewhere in the world. Scientists and scholars have been studying to know why.
Archaeologists have found, for example, that in estuaries or coasts facing the ocean where good fishing was to be had or lots of shellfish to be gathered, was where a large Jomon settlement or shell midden was located. Other choice locations for settling down were marshy areas around bays, inlets and tidal flats where the rich animal and plant life of marshes and nearby forests provided food resources.
Recent studies show that Jomon people tended to settle longer in order to organize themselves better to forage for and collect or gather seasonal foods more efficiently from nearby resource areas. Where they could find a location that was close to plentiful food sources (i.e. within a radius of 2 – 40 kilometers) for two or more seasons, the population would grow and the settlement increase in size.
The studies show that as Jomon hunter-gatherers learnt how to use storage pits (in addition to their pottery), the Jomon tribal groups were able to stay put in a place for longer periods of time and to grow in size. As they settled for longer periods in a place, the way in which the Jomon people organized themselves also became more complex. Some village sites began to specialise in what they hunted or collected and in what they produced for trade or exchange with other settlements. Their burial and ceremonial customs and religious rituals became more complex.
Large settlements such as Uenohara from the Early Jomon period are associated with storage pits, burial pits and ceremonial things such as clay figurines and earrings and beads.
Stability and sedentism
What scholars are certain of from studying the excavated Jomon homes, is that Jomon people achieved stable, though only semi-permanent settlements very early — by 13,500 years ago from the Incipient Jomon (very soon after the end of the Paleolithic or Pleistocene era).
The wintering camp, Sojiyama site in southern Kagoshima prefecture, Kyushu Island and the summer campsite, Kakoinohara site are thought to be the earliest villages.
Village sites of Uenohara Section 4 (about 12,800 years ago) and Uenohara Section 3 (9,500 to 8,250 years ago) appear to have been occupied for longer periods with more numerous house pits, greater quantities of highly decorated pottery and more substantial and durable site features.
The Earliest Jomon period site of Kakuriyama, Kaseda City dated to around 9,800 years ago, is thought to have been occupied throughout the year although the majority of Jomon settlements were only occupied for part of the year and were seasonal basecamps to which the people returned again and again.
Scholars think that the Jomon people became more settled or sedentary when the weather became warmer and the numbers of nut-bearing trees increased and more nuts became available for food. Many Jomon villages appeared to have chestnut groves or forests close by. And since wherever Jomon settlements existed remains of certain plants could be found, e.g. hemp, burdock, taro yams, barnyard grasses, beans and legumes, beefsteak (shiso and egoma) herbs, various kinds of berries and gourds, experts are agreed that Jomon villagers tended to and cultivated those plants. Of those, the various kinds of nuts were the most important and the villagers dug lots of storage pits to save the nuts as a source of food. This is thought to have caused the village population to grow, allowing the people to stay in one place for a longer time.
Scientists are fascinated with the large Jomon villages because the Jomon hunter-gathering society does not fit accepted theories about sedentism. Scientists have always thought that large settlements only grew where populations supported themselves by farming or agriculture. Jomon people, however, became sedentary or semi-sedentary without relying on farming for their livelihood or subsistence.
Jomon village patterns
One commonly seen type of village arrangement was circular or horseshoe-shaped, with a central open space, surrounded by raised storage buildings supported by posts in the ground, pit house dwellings and stone pavements. The central space was probably used for ceremonies or group activities like processing food, tool-making, pottery-making, etc. In many cases, the central space has been found to be the village cemetery.
In many of the villages especially during the Middle and Final Jomon periods, the Jomon people built special ritual sites, consisting of paved areas and stone circles with low upright stone monuments. These monuments were sometimes arranged so that they were oriented for watching sunsets over the nearby mountain peaks — aligned for some kind of calendar or astronomical reckoning.
Some of the communities were joined by good roads and even paved paths.