In Part One of the “Overview of Paleolithic Japan”, we focused on the climate, the population of life forms, and religion & culture of Paleolithic Japan. We continue with the focus on the overview of the arts and sciences of Paleolithic Japan, the life of the settlers, and the economy of Paleolithic Japan.
Before we continue on our first point, allow me to present the etymology of the word Paleolithic to have a better understanding of the period. “Paleolithic” is made up of 2 Greek Words – “paleos” which means “old” and “lithos” which means “stone”.
The Paleolithic period is about the “Old Stone” technology. It is the early part of the stone age for Japan. I’ll introduce the terms “Mesolithic” and “Neolithic” in future articles when we transition into the study of the Jomon Period.
“A bad workman quarrels with his tools” [Arts & Sciences / Technology & Information]
The Paleolithic Period was a time when settlers in Japan began using old stone technology to build a life. From fishing hooks to hunting tools to weapons and cookware, everything was done using stone and wood. Based on what we identified in part 1 about Japan’s geography during the Paleolithic Period, we can identify technology that relied on wood and leaves from trees and stones that laid on the ground.
The above image is of a fishing hook, skilfully crafted during the Paleolithic Period of Japan. The world’s oldest fish hooks are believed to have been found on Okinawa Island, dating back to around 20,000 BCE. Okinawa sure seems to provide lots of Paleolithic discoveries. The excitement in discovering things like fishing hooks gives us insight into the maritime and food industry of Paleolithic Japan. Fishing has certainly been a lifestyle for the Japanese since the Paleolithic Period, only that it is more occupational in modern times.
(Ono et al., 1992)
This chart features some of the technology from the Paleolithic Period of Japan and includes something that should have been in Part 1 of this series. This study provides an artistic sketch, with accuracy, into the technological and religious aspects of settlers in Paleolithic Japan.
In the early phase of Paleolithic Japan, the settlers used edge-round stone stools. Blades that they used were commonly backed-blade until the later Paleolithic Period, before entering into the Jomon Period. Point-tools and microblades were very popular all across Paleolithic Japan and were developed in Central Japan.
Stone tools that have been excavated resemble tools from Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Siberia. Tools from Okinawa (Ryukyu) resemble tools from Taiwan and Southeast Asia.
Sano mentions that Hokkaido might have also been the first region in Japan to have started using the MIRCROBLADE STONE technology before 17,000 BCE, having to arrive possibly from Siberia or the Korean Peninsula. (Sano, Katsuhiro, “Emergence and Mobility of Microblade Industries in the Japanese Islands“, p. 90)
The people in that time were largely hunters and gatherers and moved from point to point. Wherever they went, they left behind a trail of their campsite and evidence of their stone age existence behind – fire-cracking tools, weapons, cutting tools etc. In fact, there have been excavations of tools made of bones.
Japan is home to some of the oldest known ground stone tools and polished stone tools in the world, dating back to around 30,000 BCE. Actually, some archaeologists prefer to describe the Paleolithic tools of Japan as more Mesolithic (Between Paleolithic and Neolithic) and Neolithic (New Stone Tools) because the tools found in Japan were not exactly originally invented in Japan but an innovation of what was being brought in by settlers from China, Korea, Russia, and possible Southeast Asia.
Arts & Science
Interestingly, information about human anatomy was already progressing in Paleolithic Japan. According to scientists, a 24,000 year-old image of a vagina was found in Kagoshima Prefecture. Kagoshima is an area close to Okinawa. It was unearthed from the Mimitori ruins in Kagoshima. The announcement was made in 2001. It was found as an object. The object was shaped like a carved figure of a woman, featuring also other exaggerated sexual features of a woman. This discovery was also thought to be a form of art, not just science, for the Paleolithic settlers of Japan, with the next oldest form of art to be found in Ehime Prefecture. It is an engraved pebble of a female with breasts. The artifact dates back to around 12,000 BCE.
“Even seabream is not delicious when eaten in loneliness” [Life of the Settlers]
Without the use of machinery and agriculture, the settlers were not without food or shelter. Like every Paleolithic settler in any region, the settlers in the Japanese archipelago depended mostly on fishing, hunting, and foraging for survival. They used stone tools to fish, hunt and gather food. In particular, the sea creatures they consumed were eel, fish, frogs, and crabs. They hunted Nauman’s elephants, as a main source of meat, Yabe’s elks (giant deer that are now extinct), birds and other small mammals like badgers and foxes. They foraged for berries, nuts, and fruits as well. These are some of the ingredients we still taste in Japan today. So we can say that Unajyuu (Eel on Rice) was a traditional Japanese dish that was put together after years of eating eel and after agriculture came about much later on. Quite obviously, if you don’t eat eel in Japan you are really missing out. Even the early settlers in Japan knew that.
As for shelter, the settlers didn’t have permanent places of accommodation. They moved from cave to cave and stone shelters to stone shelters, just like how we move from hotel to hotel on a holiday, only without a budget constraint. Bones of an 8 year-old child was found in a cave. The child’s remains date back to 32,500 years ago and has been nicknamed Yamashita Dojin.
The significance in knowing about the life of early settlers is identifying what cuisine has originated in Japan and what was introduced into Japan that the Japanese innovated. It is also very interesting to witness the development of how the Japanese upgraded their accommodations as new technology came into play.
“Work of Self, Obtainment of Self” [Economy]
Economically speaking, Paleolithic settlers in Japan didn’t have one on a national level. Everything was tribal in nature. As with any economy, jobs were created to support a civilization. What kind of industries started in Japan? We can consider the following:
- Fishing – Fishing for seafood, and searching for other possible materials and sources of food from the sea
- Hunting – hunting animals for food and materials
- Manufacturing – Making of tools and equipment for fishing and hunting. Production of tools for protection from danger and clothes to keep the community warm in the harsh winter of the Japanese archipelago
- Gatherers – Gathering Berries, nuts, and fruits for consumption
- Security – To keep the travelers safe from harm wherever they went
- Culinary – Prepping food for the community
There is no definite clue, as of now, as to whether or not there was any form of currency for trade. They most likely bartered goods during this time or conquered other settlers for resources. As they say, survival of the fittest. The Japanese have a saying for this “The weak are meat, the strong eat.”
Knowing the economy of the early settlers in the Japanese archipelago gives us insight into what kind of industries they depended on for survival, and how new industries would show up later to improve their living conditions.
Coming Up Next
In this article, we’ve highlighted points about the technology, science and arts of Paleolithic Japan, the life of the time (what they ate, drank and lived in), and the economy of the Japanese people.
In Part III of the Overview of Paleolithic Japan, we look into the political situation of Paleolithic settlements in Paleolithic Japan, relations with the regions outside of the Japanese archipelago, and any other significant events that occurred during that period.
- Along the Paleolithic Path, Heritage of Japan (https://heritageofjapan.wordpress.com/pacing-the-paleolithic-path/)
- Charles T. Keally (May 1993). A Cultural Anthropological Perspective on the Question of Early and Middle Paleolithic Cultures in Japan
- History of Japan, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Japan)
- Japanese Paleolithic Period, t-net.ne.jp (http://www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/palaeol.html)
- Kitagawa, J.M., & Miller, A.L. (Eds). Hori, I. (Author). (1968). Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- ONO, A., HARUNARI, H., & ODA, S. eds. (1992): Atlas of Japanese Archaeology. University of Tokyo Press.
- Origins of the Paleolithic people of Japan, Heritage of Japan (https://heritageofjapan.wordpress.com/pacing-the-paleolithic-path/origins-of-the-paleolithic-people/)
- Paleolithic Art in Japan, Heritage of Japan (https://heritageofjapan.wordpress.com/pacing-the-paleolithic-path/paleolithic-art-in-japan/)
- Paleolithic Japan, Facts and Details (http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat16/sub105/entry-5275.html)
- Sano, K. (2007). “Emergence and Mobility of Microblade Technology in the Japanese Islands” in Kuzmin, Y. V., Keates, S. G. and Shen, C. (eds.) Origin and Spread of Microblade Technology in Northeastern Asia and North America. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C: Archaeology Press, pp. 79-90.
- World’s Oldest Fish Hooks: What They Tell Us About Paleolithic Japan, The Christian Science Monitor (https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0919/World-s-oldest-fish-hooks-What-they-tell-us-about-Paleolithic-Japan)