For a long time, people thought that Jomon people must have lived simple lives as bands of hunters where everyone was more or less of equal status other than the tribal chief or village headman.
However, experts today are beginning to paint a rather different picture of Jomon society. Here are some of their ideas:
Some experts think the Jomon people from the Early Jomon period onwards led rather affluent lives, which means that they ate good food and owned many material things. Many Jomon villages were rather large, had storage pits, and some had raised storage buildings. Archaeologists think SOMEONE IMPORTANT must have controlled the abundant food resources, directed and coordinated the the work of collecting, processing, storing and distributing the food.
Some settlements specialized in producing very valuable products for trade (e.g. dried shellfish or sea mammal meat, jade beads, earrings or shell jewellery, lacquered ware, clay vessels or figurines, salt, asphalt or obsidian raw materials, important stone tools or stone rods). Experts believe that where goods that have prestige were being produced and traded, someone in the village would have controlled the valuable goods for trade. Such a person in control would likely have had considerable political power.
A fairly common pattern seen in Jomon villages where the pit houses were arranged in a circular manner with a central space. This type of circular village system is called the kanjo shuraku. Archaeologists believe that the construction of such a village required labour, cooperation, good long-term planning and a communication system with someone in charge.
Many burial pits have been excavated from the central spaces of the kanjo shuraku village settlements. In the beginning of Jomon era, grave goods were less common and when there were grave goods, they tended to be fairly ordinary things like stone tools or a pot that might have perhaps identified the person as a hunter or a potter. As time went by and the era progressed, some of the Jomon people were buried with more grave goods than others. And some of Jomon people were buried with more valuable grave goods than others…such as red lacquered burial clothes, shell bracelets or stone rods. These grave goods suggest to experts that there was unequal status between Jomon people…like there are rich and poor people in our modern society today.
Also excavated from Jomon village sites were many ceremonial objects like masks, clay figurines and ceremonial earthern lamps. The artifacts are evidence of complex myths, religious beliefs, rich symbols and ideas about the life cycle, regeneration and the seasons. Archaeologists think a religious leader, probably a shaman was a likely figure of power who had led the people in the rites and ceremonies of the Jomon society.
Studies of Late and Final Jomon skeletons from the Tsukumo shell midden in Okayama prefecture and the Yoshigo shell midden in Aichi prefecture, showed that a very select few females of Jomon society wore a large number of shell bracelets on both wrists. The bracelets were too small for adults and must have been put on when they were children. Since the shell bracelets were very fragile, it meant that these Jomon girls had been selected when they were still little — for a special role in society that would not have required them to do any daily chores like collecting shellfish and gathering plant food. Some scholars figure that these girls may have been shamans in charge of the ceremonial rituals of the Jomon society.
Burials with grave goods in areas with stone circles in the Late and Final Jomon. Some scholars think that from the Middle Jomon period onwards social inequality existed. They figure that there must have been special leaders and important elders in Jomon society from the special treatment of certain graves, the more refined grave goods that were found, the presence of grave goods with children and differences in facilities within houses. They observed a trend to include grave goods with children and infants in 17%-25% of all cases in Hokkaido and the Kanto in Final Jomon. The grave goods marked the graves as belong to children who had inherited wealth and ascribed status.Archaeologists also know that Jomon men and women did different jobs and owned different goods of prestige in society. Jomon women carried out the gathering of shellfish and acorns, nuts, and berries and other plant foods. Jomon men did the hunting and other jobs that required strength and labour like construction work. Archaeologists figured this from examining the skeleton remains which showed that the bones of male skeletons are five times more likely to have fractures than the bones of female skeletons. Jomon men and women were also buried with different grave goods: slitted stone or clay earrings are found only on female skeletons while waist pendants are found only male skeletons.
Differences in styles of pottery, houses, fireplaces and burials between the different groups indicate socially complex tribal relations. This can be seen from the groupings of burials, probably of kin groups and families. Many of the large settlements had a long span of occupation with pit dwellings being built and rebuilt over thousands of years in the same area. These settlements were likely occupied by the same family and whose family members lived in the area from generation to generation, preserving their control of territory and resources.