Yet the relationship between the Jomon and the Ainu is anything but
straightforward. Sometime around A.D. 600 to 700 in Hokkaido, rectangular
pit-houses suddenly appear, and a new type of earthenware called "Satsumon"
pottery just as precipitately replaced traditional cord-marked pottery.
Decorated with incised, geometric patterns, Satsumon pots are quite distinct
from those of the preceding Jomon. Their shapes are different, and their walls
show evidence of smoothing by pieces of wood having been scraped over the
surface. So the Sakushukotoni-gawa site is not a Jomon village. Rather it
represents a community of what, after its characteristic pottery, Hokkaido
archeologists call the "Satsumon culture." Falling in time between the Jomon
and the Ainu, the site is crucial to understanding Ainu development.
Rewriting the Ainu Story
slept fitfully after a nearly 20-hour journey to Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital, I
made my way to the lab, where Yoshi took me to a table covered in sample jars.
What I saw was not just a few grains of barley, but thousands of charred grains
packed into dozens of jars. My Japanesecolleagues had recovered the
seeds from the initial series of flotation samples from Sakushukotoni-gawa, the
first set of such samples ever collected from a Satsumon site. What Yoshi had
not told me in that fateful telephone call was that he and his compatriots had
only identified a few grains; thousands remained to be analyzed.
An archeological team works on an early Satsumon house on
In the 1920s, a visitor had mapped hundreds of pit houses, still visible as
depressions in the ground, in and around Hokkudai. Such a potentially large
population of Satsumon people was hard to explain if they were
hunter-gatherers. We now thought we knew what lay behind this dense settlement
Over the next few years, our team examined nearly a quarter million carbonized
seeds from Sakushukotoni-gawa. In addition to barley, the samples contained
bread wheat, foxtail and broomcorn millet, bean (probably azuki, or
Japanese red bean), hemp, rice, melon, and safflower as well as seeds of weeds
and wild fruit. We explored many more Satsumon sites on Hokkaido, and all
produced crop remains. Sometimes these sites contained only one or two types of
grain; others like Sakushukotoni-gawa show a wide range of crops. The list of
crops in use on Hokkaido at the time has since expanded to include buckwheat,
barnyard millet, and sorghum. The conclusion is inescapable: The Satsumon
ancestors of the Ainu were not solely hunter-fisher-collectors. They were
farmers. Such a distinction may not sound very significant, but in studies of
prehistoric societies, it makes all the difference in shaping a proper
understanding of a people's identity, power structure, economy, social
relations, and so on. It's as if you were researching your roots and discovered
that your ancestors came from South America rather than Europe as you'd always
thought; it would change the whole way you thought about your family
An electron microscope image of a grain of
barley from the Sakushukotoni-gawa site on Hokkaido.
Although our research has shown that the Jomon did grow a few crops, they did
not commit to agriculture to the extent the Satsumon did. Clearly Satsumon and
Ainu ancestral roots had to be sought elsewhere, and Ainu culture could no
longer serve as a living model of Jomon lifeways. We now believe a closer
analogue, in fact, is the agricultural ancestors of the Japanese - an
admittedly highly controversial link clinched in our minds by recognition of
the importance of agriculture to the Ainu's Satsumon ancestors.
The general archeological record in Japan is consistent with this view.
Starting about 400 B.C., the Jomon in southwestern Japan had given way to
strong influences from China and Korea, including migration. Eight hundred to a
thousand years later, most of Japan excluding Hokkaido had made a significant
commitment to agriculture. This period (400 B.C. to A.D. 300) was the time of
the Yayoi, a rice-farming culture named after the first site of its kind, which
was discovered in Tokyo's Yayoi neighborhood. While known for being the first
group in Japan to use irrigated rice fields for intensive food production, the
Yayoi also grew other crops, including barley, wheat, and foxtail and broomcorn
millet. In northeastern Japan, where attempts to grow rice met with little
success, these other crops flourished. All the crops found in Satsumon Hokkaido
were likely growing by A.D. 400-500 in Tohoku, the northernmost province of
Honshu, Japan's main island that lies just to the south of Hokkaido.