Human beings may have inhabited the Japanese island chain as early as 200,000 years ago. Very little is known about where these people came from or how they arrived on the islands. However, during the ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch (1.6 million to 10,000 years before the present) sea levels were lower than they are today, and a land bridge temporarily linked the Japanese islands to the Korea Peninsula and eastern Siberia on the Asian continent. Historians theorize that successive waves of Paleolithic hunters from the Asian mainland may have followed herds of wild animals across these land routes. The Paleolithic culture of Japanís earliest inhabitants produced rough stone tools and articles of bone, bamboo, and wood.
The Paleolithic culture of prehistoric Japan gave way to a Neolithic culture around 10,000 bc. Archaeological evidence suggests that a large number of Neolithic hunter-fisher-gatherers migrated to Japan before sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. Known as the Jomon people (after the cord markings that decorated their pottery), these immigrants used more sophisticated bone and stone tools and low-fired clay pots, but they did not know how to work metals.
The arrival of paddy rice cultivation, bronze weapons, and iron-working techniques in Kyushu around 300 bc revolutionized the lives of the islandsí inhabitants. Agriculture enabled peasant cultivators to store food surpluses from year to year and encouraged them to abandon the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and live in fixed settlements. The use of iron farming tools as well as other implements made of wood increased peasantsí productivity, and as productivity grew, so did the population. By ad 300 the new agricultural way of life (called Yayoi culture after the archaeological site where its artifacts were first discovered) had spread to the majority of the population. The hunter-gatherer way of life persisted only in the northern part of Honshu.
Although some historians hypothesize that Yayoi culture was the result of another major migration from the Asian continent by sea, this theory is not universally accepted. DNA evidence suggests that modern Japanese people descend from both the Jomon and the Yayoi peoples, but it is also likely that migration from the continent continued in later centuries, as the majority of the modern Japanese gene pool reflects an inflow from the continent after agriculture arrived. The Ainu inhabitants of the northern island of Hokkaido and the inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands to the south are the only people on the Japanese archipelago who appear to have more direct genetic links to the Jomon people.
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