For many, ancient Japan is reflected in the 1,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage sites of early capitals Nara and Kyoto. Tradition flows into the present day in tea ceremonies, geisha shows and ground-shaking sumo bouts. But long before any of that came into being － millennia before Japan’s legendary first emperor, Jimmu, was said to have taken the throne in 660 BCE － the Jomon people of northern Japan were building thriving, early societies.
In 1989, a group of high school students unearthed something magical on an old horse pasture in Aomori. boring holes in a part of the field known for its unusual scattering of rocks, they detected a circle of stones a couple of meters below ground. Though they didn’t know at the time, they had discovered a prehistoric ceremonial ground.
Called the Komakino Site, it has since been excavated to reveal not just one of Japan’s largest stone circles, but also burial pits and artefacts dating to 2,000 BCE. That’s not a one-off in Aomori. In July 2021, Komakino received joint UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status together with another 16 Jomon sites spread across Aomori and other parts of northern Japan. Dating from 13,000 to 400 BCE and straddling the six distinct stages of the Jomon Period, these sites (and dozens more without UNESCO status) now offer unparalleled insights into Japan’s ancient peoples.
Arguably the most significant of the 17 sites is Sannnai Maruyama in Aomori City: a 42-hectare settlement in use from 3,900 to 2,200 BCE that at its peak was likely home to a population of 500. As the site’s Chief explains, Sannai Maruyama is distinctive in that it allows visitors to see a reconstruction of a Jomon village, but also excavations in progress. “The site also shows the development of culture and society, and the diversity of the Jomon eras,” he adds. “We see town planning, with large buildings for communal use in the village center and pit houses for dwelling. In the dumping grounds, we see tools and other items being returned to nature or heaven － we can glimpse the spirituality of the Jomon people.”
The site gives us numerous insights into the lives of Japanese 6,000 years ago. In the heart of the village, the reconstructed main hall could have held up to 200 people as a communal workplace or for ceremonies, while nearby excavations show evidence of other large structures supported by vast wooden pillars. There are pit graves for adults in rows and the remains of infants carefully buried in ceramic jars. In Sannai Maruyama’s museum, you see exhibits like pots and stone tools, nuts and animal bones that reveal Jomon diets, and jade and obsidian that must have been brought in on trade routes from other settlements in Japan.
There are skillfully crafted figurines, decorations, and early examples of lacquerware too. But Sannai Maruyama doesn’t have a monopoly on these kinds of priceless finds. On the east side of Aomori, in Hachinohe City, the Korekawa Site and its impressive museum offer another way to get up close to Jomon culture. On display are pots with intricate designs, beautifully lacquered bows, bracelets, combs and containers, and a collection of clay figurines, the latter including the 20-centimeter-tall Gassho Dogu. Roughly 3,500 years old and now a National Treasure of Japan, this oddly goggle-eyed lady sits with her hands clasped in prayer, perhaps in a birthing position.
Perhaps is a key word, because like so many Jomon finds, Gassho Dogu invites more questions than she answers. Traces of pigment suggest she might have originally been red. There are bits of bitumen that indicate the Jomon had repaired her, so she was probably very special to someone back in 1,500 BCE. But why? Does she represent a fertility prayer or the desire for a safe birth? Are her goggle eyes part of a ceremonial mask? Unusually, she was excavated from a Jomon dwelling, not a dumping ground, where figurines are commonly found, so what role did she play in Jomon home? All are questions Korekawa’s English-speaking guides are happy to discuss. All gradually take you deeper into the distant time of the Jomon.
Tracing ancient Japanese society through archaeological finds
At the Odai Yamamoto Site in Sotogahama Town, you can get a glimpse at the earliest Jomon people. Arrowheads and undecorated potshards radiocarbon-dated to 13,000 BCE have been unearthed here, making them the earliest known pottery in northeast Asia. With no evidence of post holes or hollows that would indicate long-term dwellings, it’s thought people of this age were likely to have lived in portable tents and used the land minimally － a period of time where Jomon people were transitioning from an entirely mobile lifestyle to sedentism.
That’s quite different to the Tagoyano Site in Tsugaru City, about 50 kilometers from Sotogahama. Dating to around 4,000 to 2,000 BCE, the sites shows how Jomon culture had progressed to developed settlements. There are pit dwellings, graves, shell mounds and storage pits, as well as dumping grounds where archaeologists have recovered pots, stone tools and implements made from mammal bones. Similar finds from a similar period have been unearthed in shell mounds at the Futatsumori Site in Shichinohe Town, where Ms. Yuka Kobayashi works as the chief researcher. “These finds paint a picture of how the Jomon lived, their clothing and accessories, their rituals, how they hunted, and also of the changing environment at the time,” Ms. Kobayashi says. “We also found a carefully buried dog, which indicates a close relationship between Jomon and dogs.”
At Omori Katsuyama Stone Circle, near the foot of Mt. Iwaki in Hirosaki City, we get an even clearer snapshot of Jomon ritualism. Dating to 1,000 BCE, ritual artifacts such as engraved stones and stone swords have been unearthed here along with hundreds of disc-shaped stone object － a hint that the stone circle was an important ceremonial site. What kind of ceremonies did the Jomon perform? Well, at the Kamegaoka Burial Site in Tsugaru City, which is believed to have been in use from 1,000 to 400 BCE, researchers believe one form of Jomon spiritualism was ancestor worship. In these groups of pit graves, they have found goggle-eyed figurines, gems and other burial items.