Jomon wetland archaeology: a new palaeo-nutritional approach

Japan is famous for its long and unusual archaeological record and in particular the so-called Jomon cultures which lasted from around 10,000 years ago until the importation of rice-agriculture only 3,000 years ago. During this period no animals were domesticated and only a small range of plants were cultivated (but not domesticated) and this contrasts with most other areas of the world, including all Europeans. 

A reconstruction of the food processing area of a Jomon village at the Museum of Food Culture, Obama, Japan. Image credit: Tony Brown.

Despite being hunter-gatherers these people created villages, made pottery, and had a complex society. As a result the Jomon have often been called ‘the affluent forager/collectors/hunters’. It also appears that they did not suffer from many modern diseases most particularly cardio-vascular diseases. In this project I will use an emerging branch of archaeology, called nutritional archaeology, to investigate Jomon diet, environment and health. Nutritional archaeology is a recent development which seeks to go beyond calorific reconstructions by explicitly considering the full range of nutrients required for human well-being and procreation, from reconstructed palaeo-diet. This should not be confused with the recent fad for the ‘Palaeo-Diet’ which bears little, if any, resemblance to real hunter-gatherer diets. However, there remain strong echoes of the Jomon diet in modern Japanese food culture. 

Typical Japanese meal (evening) which contains over 27 food types (from Obama, Japan). Image credit: Tony Brown.

The opportunity to undertake this research has arisen due to a large number of archaeological excavations over the last 20 years around the coasts of Japan which have recovered remarkably well preserved remains of fish, animals and plants eaten by Jomon peoples. These remains can then be used to produce a nutritional landscape within which these peoples, lived and created Jomon society. I will also relate this historic dietary pattern to modern food culture, which is remarkably diverse and varied in the Japanese archipelago. The overall effect of this dietary and cultural history is that Japanese society has traditionally had one of the highest life expectancies (84.7 years). It is now believed this is due to a combination of dietary, genetic and cultural factors. Although primarily archaeological this project also feeds into a growing global agenda concerning health, well-being and culture in advanced economies.

Professor Tony Brown
University of Southampton
Major Research Fellowship