Prehistoric Jomon sites poised for global recognition

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Sannai Maruyama Site in Aomori

The Jomon Prehistoric Sites located in northern Japan, which are expected to be collectively registered as a World Heritage Site, have been highly acclaimed by a UNESCO advisory body for the “pre-agricultural ways of living and complex spiritual cultures” they illustrate.

The sites’ addition to the globally renowned list is expected to take place at a UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting scheduled for this month. Their inclusion will be deliberated at the meeting, based on the evaluation of documents provided by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

Various remains and artifacts tell of the rich spirituality achieved by people who lived a sedentary lifestyle about 2,300 to 15,000 years ago during the Jomon period. They also give the group of sites rare archaeological value.

The Jomon Prehistoric Sites consist of 17 sites in four prefectures — Hokkaido, Aomori, Akita and Iwate in the northern Tohoku region.

During the Jomon period, food resources, such as various nuts and seafood, were abundant in the area and the people were hunter-gatherers who lived in settlements.

The government’s application for UNESCO recognition emphasized the difference between the Japan sites and those seen in Europe and western Asia, in which human sedentism is believed to have begun with the advent of agriculture and cattle breeding.

The document also divides the Jomon period, which spans more than 10,000 years across that area, into three stages of sedentism: emergence, development and maturity.

Remnants from rituals

The evolution process between the three stages is made clear through the classification of the sites by the types of relics excavated there, including some of the world’s oldest ceramic fragments at the Odai Yamamoto Site in Sotogahama, Aomori Prefecture, and the large-scale settlement discovered at the Sannai Maruyama Site in the same prefecture.

In terms of spiritual culture, these sites vastly differ from each other in regard to their characteristics and evolutionary stages.

At the Kakinoshima Site in Hakodate, Hokkaido, classified as being within the emergence stage of sedentism, the residential and cemetery areas were found to have been separated, indicating the rise of a distinction between ordinary everyday life and the extraordinary state of life after death.

At the Kitakogane Site in Date, Hokkaido, categorized within the development stage, human and animal bones were excavated from shell disposal heaps, among clam and oyster shells. This points to the possibility of a ritual site that was a combination of a shell refuse heap and a cemetery.

More than 2,000 clay figurines and other artifacts were discovered at the Sannai Maruyama Site among archaeological dumping sites, which suggests the continuation of one or more rituals over a long period of time.

The presence of stone circles is a characteristic feature of civilizations across the development and maturity stages.

At the Goshono Site in Ichinohe, Iwate Prefecture, classified at the developmental stage, stone circles were built in the center of the settlement.

Conversely, stone circles were built around communal ritual sites for multiple settlements in the maturity stage, such as Akita Prefecture’s Oyu Stone Circles in Kazuno and the Isedotai Stone Circles in Kita-Akita.

During the maturity stage, the climate temporarily became colder, causing a drop in sea level and the formation of sand dunes. This subsequently led people in the region to broaden their living environment, said Associate Prof. Tomoya Aono, who specializes in prehistoric archaeology at Tohoku University of Art & Design.

As a result, large settlements, such as the Sannai Maruyama Site, tended to split into smaller communities, Aono says.

“There were buildings exclusively for rituals that spiritually supported and connected multiple communities,” Aono said.

In addition to the discovery of burial sites for the deceased, objects that appear to depict male and female genitals were also unearthed.

Aono said rituals focusing on people’s awareness of their own mortality may have been performed at the stone circles in settlements in the maturity stage.

At Aomori Prefecture’s Kamegaoka Burial Site in Tsugaru and Korekawa Site in Hachinohe, both classified within the final phase of the maturity stage, large cemeteries and elaborate artifacts have been discovered, such as clay figures with goggle-like eyes and lacquered items including baskets, wooden pieces, bangles and decorative bows.

Associate Prof. Yo Negishi at the University of Tokyo, a specialist in prehistoric archaeology, said: “To create lacquerware, which requires a high level of skill, the assurance of a stable life is necessary. Although the focus of the World Heritage Site designation would be the archaeological remains, the rich spirituality that the Jomon people of this region achieved in its maturity stage is clearly evident.”

Deliberation on July 24-28

The ICOMOS evaluation also examines subjects to be dealt with in the future, such as the removal of “unsuitable” buildings and construction while mitigating their impact. Although the evaluation does not mention any individual sites, a prefectural highway runs between the Oyu Stone Circles.

The issue of roads in relation to World Heritage Sites had already been raised, for example in relation to Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in Britain.

As the government’s submission of the Jomon sites for UNESCO recognition includes a plan to someday relocate the highway, this matter is expected to have no bearing on the World Heritage Committee’s deliberation.

The World Heritage Committee is scheduled to meet virtually from July 16, with deliberations on new candidates for registration, including the Jomon sites, to take place July 24-28.