Were people treated the same or as equals in the Jomon society?

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. 

5 responses to “Were people treated the same or as equals in the Jomon society?

  1. Hi. Thank you for your interesting article. I am sorry to disturb you, but could I ask for your references for this information? It is important that you write that archaeologists have these “ideas” and “opinions” rather than hypothoses, theories or are in general agreement about, etc.

    I am looking for information about the role women had in at least one stage of the Jomon culture, so maybe your references here would help.

    Thank you,

    • I will address the second part of your query first, re: the role of women. The role of women is deduced from three key areas of Jomon culture – A) plant gathering activities and subsistence strategies, related tool artefacts on which there are a great many resources; B) secondly, the pottery-making is thought to be female activity since pottery usage was most often connected to plant processing, cooking, and vast majority of ceramic figurines were related to ritual uses, connected to childbirth and ostensibly female deity or substitute proxy effigies (before the changes of the Yayoi and Kofun era introduced from the continent where the potter’s work became organized more like guilds (be). On plant foraging subsistence activities, I have relied on nearly all of the readings at this page excepting Chester Chard’s. Lecture in conjunction with meeting of the Meiji University-USC exchange December 7, 2009, by Prof. Katsunori Takase, Meiji University, Prehistoric and Protohistoric Plant Use in the Japanese Archipelago. Also curated information from the National Museum of Japanese History, and the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History as well as those of the Tokyo National Museum and the Jomon Village (Archaeological Center in Tama Center). The Metropolitan Museum’s Jomon Culture section states “All Jomon pots were made by hand, without the aid of a wheel, the potter building up the vessel from the bottom with coil upon coil of soft clay. As in all other Neolithic cultures, women produced these early potteries.” Others: WOMEN’S PREHISTORIC JOMON POTTERY; the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History takes this view as well (see the diorama of female Jomon potter) Follow also the links on my page on Jomon crafts
      On the 1st part regarding indications of social stratification in Jomon culture, see Pearson*, but also Habu*, Kobayashi, Aikens, Imamura, and Kidder authors from the Charles Keally bibilography Jomon plants page. I also find helpful J. E., 1993, The earliest societies in Japan, in (ed. D. Brown), The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 1: Ancient Japan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and Conrad Totman’s “A History of Japan”. Sarah Nelson writes across East Asia on social stratification, and finally, evidence of social stratification comes from an examination of the organization of large Jomon villages: Sannai Maruyama: A New View of Prehistoric Japan, Mark Hudson, Asia-Pacific Magazine, No. 2 May 1996 pp. 47-48., as well as the following indispensable readings: Pearson, Richard. Debating Jomon Social Complexity Asian Perspectives 46 (2): 361-388, 2007. ; Ancient Jomon of Japan by Junko Habu; Kanjo shuraku to Jomon shakai kozo [Tankobon]Yasuhiro Taniguchi (Author) see book review by Terihisa Yamamoto in the journal of the Japanese Archaeology Association; Mortuary Variability and Status Differentiation in the Late Jomon of Hokkaido Based on the Analysis of Shuteibo (Communal Cemeteries) by Takashi Sakaguchi JOURNAL OF WORLD PREHISTORY, Volume 24, Number 4, 275-308, DOI: 10.1007/s10963-011-9053-7. The situation is observed to have varied over time, location/region – however highly sedentary villages have been found even in the earliest Jomon periods, at the same time Charles Keally has noted that many Jomon groupings over the entire period remain but hamlets. Generally speaking, the complexity of Jomon society has been most marked of the Middle Jomon period seen in the sophisticated control of resources, viz. pottery/lithic and craft industries…in the largest of the Jomon villages to some of the later period villages.

  2. I will get back to you on your query. Thanks for writing in.

  3. So, were you able to find those references? Been checking in now and again but haven’t seen anything.

  4. Thank you, your references are more than enough. Nice work!!

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