The Jomon were the first inhabitants of Japan, who lived in the country between 16,500 and 2,300 years ago. They lived as sedentary hunter-gatherers, and during the Middle Jomon period around 5400-4500 BCE, they reached their peak population and cultural complexity, during a warm period.

However, later there was a climate cooling, and the Jomon population began to decrease in the Late Jomon period. Although climate change surely affected humans, evidence of this is sometimes indirect.

Some researchers believe they relied too much on resources that became scarcer with the cold. Others think the number of Jomon settlements was already decreasing before, so climate wasn’t the direct cause.

Reconstruction of a Jomon settlement
Reconstruction of a Jomon settlement. Credit: Ty19080914 / Wikimedia Commons

Studies of fossil plants show that evergreen forests were replaced by conifers in parts of Japan during the cooling period, which must have affected food sources.

However, other analyses show increased use of land resources in the late period, demonstrating the complexity of the impact of climate change.

Previous studies found little change in stress markers between periods, so there was no evidence of increased hunger. But these markers have multiple causes and aren’t direct proof of malnutrition.

A recent study examined the prevalence of scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency, in two Jomon groups and found a significant increase in the late period, suggesting a greater impact of malnutrition.

Scurvy features in adults from Ōta and Tsukumo. New bone and/or porosity in a) the posterior maxilla (black arrow; Tsukumo 3, young adult male); b) the right medial coronoid process of the mandible (Tsukumo 23, old adult male); c) the left lateral sphenoid and temporal bones (Tsukumo 3, young adult male); d) the superior orbital roof (note how the porous lesions extend from the supraorbital foramen (black arrows) and are cortically restricted; Ōta 710, young adult female); e) the supraspinous fossa of the right scapula (Tsukumo 23, old adult male); f) the medial aspect of the left coronoid process of the mandible (Ōta 718, middle-aged adult male); and g) the left posterior zygoma (Tsukumo 60, young adult female)
Scurvy features in adults from Ōta and Tsukumo. New bone and/or porosity in a) the posterior maxilla (black arrow; Tsukumo 3, young adult male); b) the right medial coronoid process of the mandible (Tsukumo 23, old adult male); c) the left lateral sphenoid and temporal bones (Tsukumo 3, young adult male); d) the superior orbital roof (note how the porous lesions extend from the supraorbital foramen (black arrows) and are cortically restricted; Ōta 710, young adult female); e) the supraspinous fossa of the right scapula (Tsukumo 23, old adult male); f) the medial aspect of the left coronoid process of the mandible (Ōta 718, middle-aged adult male); and g) the left posterior zygoma (Tsukumo 60, young adult female). Credit: Melandri Vlok et al. / Antiquity

However, there were no changes in scurvy-related death age, meaning that although the disease was more common, it didn’t lead to more deaths, ruling out malnutrition and hunger as causes of the population decline.

The researchers’ conclusion is that the Jomon shared food in times of scarcity, adapting their food-sharing practices and preventing fatal consequences, which helped counteract the effects of cooling.

In Tsukumo, a strategy to share food resources in times of scarcity may have contributed to increasing scurvy prevalence, while protecting the community from its fatal consequences, the researchers indicate. We conclude that alternative models are needed for the correlation between climate change and population decline, particularly for the Western Jomon.


Sources

Vlok M, McFadden C, Matsumura H, Buckley HR. Nutritional deficiency and ecological stress in the Middle to Final western Jōmon. Antiquity. Published online 2024:1-15. doi:10.15184/aqy.2024.50


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