Presence of nearly 500 maize weevils in ancient Japanese pottery sheds new light on the culture of the Jōmon people

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An ancient Japanese pottery vessel – unearthed in February 2016 among the ruins in the island of Hokkaido – has now caught the attention of researchers the world over. Dating back to the late Jōmon period (circa 4500 BC-3300 BC), the unusual artifact has nearly 500 maize weevils integrated into its design. Through the rare discovery, archaeologists hope to uncover fresh insights into the culture, food habits and religious practices of the Jōmon people.

In Japanese history, the Jōmon period spanned between circa 14,000 BC and 1000 BC. Historians have, in turn, divided the period into multiple phases, namely Incipient (16,500-10,000 years ago), Initial (10,000-7,000), Early (7,000-5,450), Middle (5,450-4,420), Late (4,420-3,220) and Final (3,220-2,350).

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These ancient Japanese people were known for their intricate tools and jewellery, crafted from stone, shell, bones and antler. In addition to pottery vessels and figurines, lacquerware made by the Jōmon people have also survived till the present times. In fact, by 2003, numerous Jōmon-era pottery fragments featuring foreign-body impressions were recovered from different archaeological sites across Japan.

Over the years, inspection of these artifacts revealed traces of seeds and insects from the Jōmon period. Interestingly, maize weevils have made up nearly 90 percent of all recorded insect impressions in Jōmon pottery. Also known as the greater rice weevil, this species of beetle – belonging to the Curculionidae family – is a major pest of standing crops as well as stored cereals, ranging from wheat, rice, sorghum, oats, barley, rye, buckwheat, and maize.

Back in 2010, a team from Kumamoto University led by Professor Hiroki Obata uncovered maize weevil impressions in 10,000-year-old pottery found at a site in the southern Japanese island of Tanegashima. According to these researchers, the insects, which likely came from the Korean Peninsula, had been destroying stored food products – including chestnuts and acorns – much before rice cultivation commenced in that area.

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Two years later, the same team came across maize weevil impressions in pottery pieces unearthed at the Sannai-Maruyama site of Aomori, a prefecture in the northern part of Japan. Given that Aomori experiences somewhat cold winters, the proliferation of weevils points towards the existence of a warm indoor environment even during the winter. This, in turn, indicates that weevil infestation of stored food was already rampant during the Jōmon period.

As part of the project, Professor Obata and his team first discovered traces of maize weevils in the pottery recovered from Hokkaido, back in February 2016. At the time, they also stumbled upon a Jōmon age-vessel containing a large number of maize weevils. X-ray CT scans later revealed that the artifact contained as many as 417 adult maize weevils, in addition to numerous other cavities where the insects might have once been present. In total, up to 501 whole weevils were estimated to be mixed into the clay.

Through the research, the team made another interesting discovery. Upon comparing the size of 337 maize weevil impressions in pottery fragments found across the country, they discovered that the insects from eastern Japan were approximately 20 percent longer than those from western Japan. According to the scientists, this difference in body length could have been the result of varying nutritional values of food found in the respective regions, for instance, the sweet chestnuts of east Japan as opposed to the acorns of western Japan.

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Interestingly, chestnuts are not native to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. THe presence of weevil impressions in the pottery at the Tatesaki archaeological site in Hokkaido, therefore, indicates that the Jōmon people of Tohoku in south Hokkaido likely carried supplies over the Tsugaru Strait by ship. Speaking about the findings, Professor Obata said –

The meaning of a large amount of adult maize weevils in pottery was not touched upon in detail in my paper. However, I believe that the Jomon people mixed the weevils into the pottery clay with the hope of having a good harvest.

The latest findings of Professor Obata and his team were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Source/Image Credits: Kumamoto University