Did the Jomon people do any farming?

Chestnut gathering (Tokyo Maibun Archaeological Center)

It used to be thought that Jomon people didn’t cultivate crops and plants, since they were supposed to be hunter-gatherers. 

Nevertheless, many recently excavated Jomon settlements have shown that Jomon people often maintained and tended nut groves … and that chestnut trees were their especial favorites.

Archaeologists also discovered that wherever Jomon settlements were to be found, certain edible plants could also be found to have been literally growing in their backyards.

chestnuts.jpg chestnut grove picture by Heritageofjapan The Jomon tended chestnut trees around their settlement

As hunter-gatherers, the Jomon people were already skillful at living off plants and trees that grew naturally in the marshes and forests around them. And eventually, they learnt to plant seeds, move seedlings or saplings and transplant them to slopes and other locations near their settlements, and encourage their growth.

It is known from excavations, for example, that the Jomon people must have transplanted chestnut seedlings from lower areas to the southern slopes of Mt. Yatsugatake where they lived.

From many sites (including Torihama, Sannai Maruyama and Mawaki) of the Early Jomon and Middle Jomon period, scientists have studied pollen and many seeds and grains under their powerful scanning electron microscopes and identified many of them. They now know that the Jomon people cultivated these plants: boehmeria nettle, hemp, egoma and shiso mint(Perilla), bottle gourd (Lagenaria), buckwheat (Fagopyrum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), barnyard millet (Echinocloa), bean (Leguminosae), green gram (Vigna radiata), soybean, burdock (Arctium lappa), and rice (Oryza sativa). Yamaimo or mountain potato and the taro potato were also likely cultivated root plants.

Hey wait, they cultivated plants you say, doesn’t that sound like farming?

But many scholars still think that these cultivated plant foods were only used to supplement their main food sources, sometimes as condiments, for flavoring their foods, sometimes, for special foods to be served during special ceremonial and festive occasions only.   

Other experts think that the Jomon people survived on a daily basis off a wide variety of seasonal wild foods that they hunted, collected and gathered, but that there were some communities that tended and cultivated in a rudimentary way the plants that were growing near their dwellings. 

One indication of domestication of plants by the Jomon people was that the sizes of the some of the grains, beans or nuts, tended to be larger than those found growing naturally in the wild… since people tend to choose larger nuts or fruit or juicier ones. However, scientists as a whole do not consider this evidence of incipient agriculture to be true farming or agriculture as the growing of these crops was not sufficiently organized to form the basis of their economy.

nutsfoundinJomonsettlementKawasakiC.jpg Nut remains Jomon ruins picture by Heritageofjapan

The remains of a wide variety of nuts have been recovered from the ruins of many Jomon settlements (Collection of Kawasaki City Museum)

Remains of the nuts the Jomon had gathered in the fall and stored at their settlements, include chestnuts (Castanea crenata), horse chestnuts or buckeyes (Aesculus turbinata), walnuts (Juglans sieboldiana) and deciduous acorns (Quercus) as well as evergreen acorns (Cyclobalanopsis and Castanopsis). 

To find out what the Jomon people survived from season to season, see the Jomon seasonal calendar

2 responses to “Did the Jomon people do any farming?

  1. Thanks for yet another informative post.
    So, like many “hunter-gatherers” at least some of the Jomon tribes were practising farming. I found this sentence very telling:
    “However, scientists as a whole do not consider this evidence of incipient agriculture to be true farming or agriculture as the growing of these crops was not sufficiently organized to form the basis of their economy.”
    Whereas to me it actually sounds like they were practising sustainable farming! When you make farming the basis of your economy you get population explosions and consequent ecosystem degradation (biomass to human-mass). If we could get over our arrogance of being so advanced compared to all those “primitives” we might learn a thing or two about how to live with out destroying ourselves and everything we touch.

  2. Let us all know that horse chesnuts (buckeye, Aesculus spp) are toxic and must be properly leached to be safely eaten.

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