Mysterious Ancient Laquareware at Karimba Jomon Site

Traces of human settlements have recently been excavated near the Karimba River in the city of Eniwa in central Hokkaido. This discovery tells a story that begins in the early Jomon period 9,000 years ago and continues through to modern Ainu culture. It was named the Eniwa Karimba Remains, after the nearby river. In the lower areas of the site, traces of homes and furnaces have been uncovered, while many burial sites have been found in the higher areas. This burial ground contained graves dating back to the late Jomon period in which several people were buried together wearing luxurious accessories. The Karimba site is the only place where such a large number of accessories have been discovered in a group burial from the Jomon period.

The Jomon period began around the end of the ice age 15,000 years ago and saw the emergence of a hunter-gatherer society as people began to cook using earthenware and create fixed settlements. This society was sustained for more than 10,000 years in various parts of Japan without the need to develop agriculture, as hunting and gathering were the main activities. Society during this period was peaceful and there were no walls separating the settlements from the outside world. However, a society based on rice cultivation began on the southern island of Kyushu and spread to northern Honshu. At the same time, the Jomon culture disappeared from the center stage of history. When pottery with rope-like designs was discovered many years later in the 19th century, the period from which it came was given the name Jomon, meaning “cord-patterned”. When these pieces were first discovered, it was initially thought that their culture was simple and primitive. However, the excavation of refined artifacts such as those found at the Karimba site has given rise to a new perception that the Jomon culture had a strong aesthetic sense and deep spirituality.

The Eniwa City Historical Museum contains a recreation of a group burial site from the Eniwa Karimba Remains. It is thought that five people were buried in one of these graves, and this is depicted in an illustration. The figure in the center is wearing a red lacquered waistband and a chlorite and amber necklace. The person lying next to them is wearing a similar necklace. Their hair was tied up and held with three red lacquered combs, while their foreheads was covered with cloth held in place by sharks’ teeth and a red lacquered ring. Those buried around these two people were wearing similar combs and hair adornments.

This group burial was created in the late Jomon period, about 3,000 years ago. It was a time where the population was declining as the cold climate caused food shortages. People are thought to have been afraid, making tools to express prayers to the gods and performing various rituals. We don’t know what kind of ritual was performed at the Karimba site, but by looking at this mysterious grave, we can imagine the activities of these people from the distant past.

For example, we can speculate that the person buried at the center of the grave was a shaman, and that her attendants were martyred when she died. As red is the color of blood and carries the meaning of life and living things, the red iron oxide that was scattered on the grave and the red adornments worn by the deceased may have been a way to ensure their rebirth. The sharks’ teeth may also signify regeneration as they grow back after being removed.

Only 20 years have passed since the group burial was discovered at the Karimba site. It poses many mysteries, but we can be sure that a grave containing people buried with such adornments existed in this area.

(This article was written in a project involving our company sponsored by Hokkaido District Transport Bureau)