A Land of Plenty

The variety of foods eaten

From hundreds of thousands of excavations, it is now known that the remains of a wide variety of plants and animals were used at Jomon sites. There were over sixty species of mammals, more than 350 species of shellfish, over seventy species of fish, thirty-five species of bird and fifty-five kinds of plants. Although plant foods are very perishable and do not survive well in most archaeological contexts, we can see that Jomon people ate a wide variety of plants and vegetables.

Regional differences and seasonality

Excavations of shell middens and waterlogged or wetland sites have revealed differences in the foods used in various regions due to the differences in their environments. Different plants and animals are available at different times of year and this allows archaeologists to recreate the annual cycle of subsistence activities by local people. Jomon people followed the seasonality of each food resource, and they organised their food gathering through a carefully scheduled annual calendar.

Part 1: Seasonal delicacies and regional diversity

Archaeology allows us to see what foods were eaten and how they might have been exploited. We can compare one site against another and see differences in how various regions exploited their environment. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

What were the characteristic food strategies in the Jomon period?

Fig. 01 – Awazu shell midden

1: Awazu shell midden in Shiga prefecture in the southernmost part of Lake Biwa

This is a waterlogged site now lying up to 2 metres below the surface of the lake. The shell midden was formed at the lakeside and later covered with water after the land subsided. The shell layers preserved a wide range of Jomon food remains and other organic materials, because the lake water has prevented exposure to the air. On many archaeological sites in Japan, volcanic acidic soil erodes completely any organic materials from prehistory.

Fig. 02 – Shell midden deposits at Awazu

2: Shell midden deposits at Awazu in Shiga prefecture

The site was excavated  after being enclosed in a double sheeted pile wall and the water then pumped out. No.3 shell mound showed alternating layers of white shells of fresh water clam (Seta corbicula) and blackened shells of acorns and horse chestnuts. Deposits of shell were formed in spring and summer, and nutshells were discarded in autumn. Black-and-white-banded layers indicate repeated seasonal food gathering activities.

Fig. 03 – Satohama shell midden

3: Satohama shell midden in Miyagi prefecture

There are many Jomon shell middens along the Pacific coast of Honshu. Located in the scenic surroundings of Matsushima Bay, regarded as one of the three most beautiful places in Japan, the Satohama shell middens have been investigated by archaeologists over many years. Now home to the reconstructed Satohama Jomon village and museum, the analysis of this site has provided much important evidence for the Jomon way of life in this part of Japan.

Fig. 04 – Shell midden layers at Satohama, Miyagi prefecture

4: Shell midden layers at Satohama in Miyagi prefecture

A deposit more than 3 metres thick was divided into over 300 layers. These revealed seasonal food gathering by fishing, collecting nuts and hunting. Excavations in other areas like Tokyo Bay on shell middens at UbayamaKasori and Kusakari have also provided similarly rich data.

Fig. 05 – An idealised Jomon calendar Some commonly exploited Jomon food resources. 1. Whale 2. Dolphin 3. Tuna 4. Skipjack 5. Black porgy 6. Horse mackerel 7. Japanese flounder 8. Abalone 9. Horned turban 10. Clam 11. Short-necked clam 12. Walnut 13. Acorn 14. Sweet chestnut 15. Horse chestnut 16. Japanese hare 17. Japanese wild boar 18. Raccoon dog 19. Shika deer 20. Pheasant 21. Duck 22. River snail 23. Carp 24. Chum salmon 25. Eel 26. Fern 27. Bracken 28. White-cheeked flying squirrel 29. Japanese serow 30. Bear 31. Japanese macaque.

5: An idealised Jomon calendar

This picture gives an impression of how Jomon people structured their annual calendar. There were of course variations of detail in this calendar at different times in the period and in different parts of Japan. In the spring, many kinds of mountain vegetables become available from April onwards. Remains of vegetable foods are rarely found, but a few examples are known, preserved under the right conditions, usually in waterlogged sites, such as that found at Sakuramachi in Toyama prefecture. In coastal areas, such as Satohama and Kasori, collecting sea shells, such as Orient clam, Manila clam and clams of the Corbiculidae family was common. In inland areas like Lake Biwa, a large quantity of fresh water clams was collected as shown by the deposits at Awazu.

Fig. 06 – Fish bone fragments from Satohama shell middens, Miyagi prefecture. Jomon period. Above: sea bass, upper left 6 cm width Below: red sea bream, upper left 4.9 cm width Length of bodies estimated to be over 50 cm

6: Remains of sea fish from archaeological sites

In the summer, fishing was a major activity. Red sea bream, black porgy, sea bass, horse mackerel and sardine are major sea fish. At Satohama, the bones of off-shore fish in shell middens shows that Jomon people rowed out to sea in their dugout canoes to fish using hooks and harpoons. They were effective in catching large fish such as tuna. A wide range of river and lake fish is available in inland areas and western Japan, such as sweet river fish. At Awazu, people caught a variety of fresh water fish, such as crucian carp, common carp and Japanese dace in the spring and summer. Maybe it was easy to catch them because many fish come to the shore in the spawning season.

Fig. 07 – Various edible nuts (Clockwise from upper left) Sweet chestnut; horse chestnuts; remains of a Middle Jomon chestnut from Sannai Maruyama, Aomori Prefecture; acorns.

7: Various edible nuts

Autumn is the season to gather nuts and acorns. Sweet chestnuts, walnuts, horse chestnuts and acorns are often found on Jomon sites. There are deciduous acorns in eastern Japan and evergreen acorns in the west. Results of analysis for pollen and botanical remains at Sannai Maruyama and Satohama have shown that sweet chestnut or horse chestnut trees grew near their villages. This suggests that Jomon people intentionally selected those trees as a major food source and managed the forests. Large sweet chestnuts approximately five centimetres wide, nearly as large as domesticated ones, were found from the site of Aota in the final Jomon.

Fig. 08 – Analysis of isotopes from human bones from five Jomon sites.

8: Reconstructing Jomon diet by analysing isotopes in the collagen in human bone.

Samples from five cemeteries show different proportions of various plant foods. These proportions are revealed by the analysis of chemical isotopes left by the plants (and other foods) in the collagen of human bone. Analysis of these isotopes by Minagawa Masao has shown that plants, especially nuts, were the most important food of the people living on Honshu.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • What were the characteristic food strategies in the Jomon period?

Secondary questions

  • What advantage is there in using a wide range of foods?
  • What are the implications of using a wide range of foods?

Part 2: Techniques for fishing, hunting, storage and cooking

Foods have to be gathered and then processed before being eaten. Not all these activities leave archaeological traces for us to find, but some do. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

How was food collected and processed during the Jomon period?

Fig. 10 – Jomon fishing gear Top right: five head-removable harpoons. Left: normal harpoons. Bottom right: fish hooks and net sinkers

10: Fishing harpoons

Fishing was an important way of obtaining protein. Fish-hooks, harpoons, and net sinkers used to weight down fishing nets have been discovered from many sites. Removable harpoons were used for sea mammal hunting in Hokkaido and tuna fishing in Sendai Bay area. Evidence from the Satohama shell middens in the area of Sendai Bay shows how these harpoons were used. The head of the harpoon was hafted on to the shaft, and attached to using a long string or rope. Once the fish was impaled by the harpoon, the harpoon head was twisted 90 degrees by pulling on the rope, thus lodging it firmly in the body of the fish. After impaling the animal, the head of the harpoon is rotated 90 degrees by pulling the rope, and it is then lodged in the body. The fisherman can then easily move tuna weighing a couple of hundred kilograms.

Fig. 11 – Fish traps Upper: fish trap from the Final Jomon Aota site. 68 cm long. Lower: traditional fish trap from Okumiomote village, Niigata prefecuture

11: Portable fish traps

Fish traps played a significant role in Jomon subsistence. It is rare to find such traps made with organic materials at many Jomon settlements which are on dry terraces with acid soils. An uke is a portable fish trap basket with a shape like an artillery shell, made by knitting together thin branches. The funnel-like mouth prevents fish from going back outside.

Fig.12 – A late Jomon fish trap from Shidanai, Iwate prefecture

12: Fixed fish traps

The wooden remains of a type of fish trap have been identified at a few sites, at Shidanai in Iwate prefecture and Momijiyama location no.49 in Sapporo city. The trap at Momijiyama was made of a wooden fence and rows of wooden piles that crossed the small rivers. It is thought that these were mainly for salmon returning to their home stream to spawn every autumn.

Fig. 13 – Storage pit at Sannai Maruyama, Aomori prefecture

13: Storage pit at Sannai Maruyama in Aomori prefecture

Many foods can be stored for future use, such as nuts collected in the autumn for preservation into the next year. A large quantity of discarded acorn skins was found at Awazu, suggesting intensive storage. Storage pits have been found from over 200 Jomon sites. Hundreds of storage pits have been found at the one site of Kusakari shell midden. Flask-shaped pits are distinctive in eastern Japan, and a large one found at Sannai Maruyama in Aomori Prefecture is a couple of metres wide at the bottom and equally deep.

Fig. 14 – A reconstruction of cooking Jomon dumplings, like those found carbonised at Ondashi, Yamagata prefecture

14: Reconstruction Jomon dumplings

At Ondashi in Yamagata prefecture, early Jomon biscuits were found. The diameter of the largest dumpling from Ondashi is 7 cms. These dumplings often contained nuts and other ingredients which can be identified by microsopic analysis. Preserved since the Jomon through being burnt and carbonised, they provide a direct insight into Jomon cuisine.

Fig. 15 – A reconstructed cooking scene at a Jomon settlement

15: A reconstructed Jomon cooking scene at a settlement

Meat, fish, nuts and a variety of plant foods formed the basis of Jomon diets. Pottery was essential to the preparation and serving of Jomon food. Many Jomon settlements have evidence for outdoor cooking facilities as well as hearths inside the houses, which may have been used for cooking as well as for heat and light. Who do you think would have done the cooking? In this reconstruction it is a Jomon woman. The raw ingredients are neatly arranged in baskets and ceramic pots, on a woven mat, suggesting a concern with cleanliness and order. But we have no evidence for washing up at such sites – and indeed sometimes archaeologists find the burnt remains of food inside the pots themselves.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • How was food collected and processed during the Jomon period?

Secondary questions

  • What materials were used to make the tools for food processing?
  • How much archaeological evidence for food processing survives?