Origins of the Ainu
An Epi-Jomon pot.
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Hokkaido Jomon cultures continued during the Yayoi period long after the Jomon
ended in southwestern Japan, but these continuing (or Epi-Jomon) sites
developed a new character. Most sites consist of simple cemeteries with
associated, apparently seasonal encampments. Inexplicably, only a few Epi-Jomon
pit-houses have ever turned up.
A migration of the Satsumon from Tohoku into Hokkaido seems to have brought an
end to the Epi-Jomon. Indeed, the Satsumon culture appears to have developed
out of the Tohoku Yayoi, though little is known of the archeology of this
transition. By the time the Satsumon appeared, the Japanese in southwestern
Japan were well on their way to establishing a nation-state. Satsumon material
culture resembles that of these early state peoples, particularly the Nara and
Heian regimes (A.D. 710-1192). Clearly, Ainu culture was far removed from the
How had this earlier characterization of the Ainu as hunters of the northern
Japanese forests evolved? For one thing, few actually witnessed Ainu life
before it was disrupted by Japanese colonization attempts, and those who did
visit Ainu communities reported agriculture, but they generally assumed it to
be a recent introduction by the Japanese, who had passed laws in the late 1800s
requiring the Ainu to settle and take up agriculture. The government needed to
take a census for taxation purposes, and men as hunters, women as farmers did
not fit standard employment categories. So, by legislation, the government, in
effect, deemed that men become farmers, even though, as our findings suggest,
they had been farmers for some time.
A bleaker thought is that fostering a myth of simple hunter-gatherers made it
easier for Japanese colonizers to appropriate Ainu lands and resources. In
hindsight, the changes stem from a complicated mix of factors, cultures, and
attitudes developed over many centuries. But the Ainu still exist and, despite
extreme hardship, are slowly making progress towards gaining recognition as an
indigenous people of Japan. Hopefully the results of that phone call back 16
years ago will aid that process.
A mass of
millet (mixed grain) from a flotation sample.
Dr. Gary W. Crawford is a professor in the Department of Anthropology,
University of Toronto, Canada. An archeologist specializing in
palaeoethnobotany, the study of the relationships between plants and people in
prehistory, he has conducted research in Japan since 1974. The author would
like to thank Susan Rossi-Wilcox for her comments on earlier drafts of this
article, and the following organizations for supporting his research:
the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Earthwatch,
the Japan Association for the Advancement of Science, the University of
Toronto, and Hokkaido University.
Photos/images: (1-8) courtesy of Gary Crawford.
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