The earliest history of Japan starts in the Paleolithic Period, from around 40,000 BCE to 10,000 CE. It is during this period that the first humans came to the Japanese archipelago. Humans were able to cross easily at that time because of land bridges and a lower sea level.
The Japanese Paleolithic Period is quite unique compared to the rest of the world, since polished stone tools have been discovered and dated to around 30,000 BCE. This technology wasn’t available in the rest of the world until the Neolithic period some 20,000 years later, and it is currently unknown why similar tools haven’t been found anywhere else around the same period.
After the end of the Paleolithic comes the Ancient Period, where people created many tools and artifacts, and where the Japanese culture takes root. It starts with the Jomon Period, which lasted until 800 BCE. This is when Japan’s inhabitants became hunter-gatherers. They started to make various tools and jewelry made out various materials such as stones, bones, or shells. Potteries, earthenware figures, as well as lacquerware were also developed during that period.
The next period lasts from 800 BCE to 300 CE, and is called the Yayoi Period. The name comes from a Tokyo neighborhood where many artifacts were found, including decorated pottery. The Japanese settled as an agricultural society during this period, where buildings were made out of wood and stone. They cultivated rice fields intensively, and began to use iron tools and weapons, even creating a complex society with a political system and different social classes.
The last period of the Ancient Period is called the Kofun Period, lasting from 300 to 538. This period is where cultural exchanges with the Korean Peninsula were happening. Buddhism and the Chinese writing system was introduced from the mainland during this time. There are records from the earliest political centralization, when the Yamato Clan established the Imperial House and created many trade routes across the lands.
Another important characteristic of this period are the keyhole-shaped burial mounds, or kofun. As the period’s name tells it, many mounds surrounded by moats were built for the ruling elite and the Imperial Family. More than 160,000 of kofun tomb sites have been found all over Japan.
The Kofun Period is succeeded by the Asuka Period.