The matter of pottery and its invention was one of numerous subjects dedicated to Southeast and East Asian Archaeology, which I studied during one of my chosen modules at the university. Although for many scholars the subject of pottery does not seem to tell a compelling story, it turned out to give me a highly interesting insight into general research and the question about the time of pottery’s invention, as according to universal knowledge, its appearance is conventionally associated with the Neolithic, which is, in turn, joined with the high-speed revolution in the development of human kind. Nevertheless, such an idea mostly concerns the area of the Middle East. In Far East Asia countries, such as Japan or China, the subject of pottery should be regarded differently.
Development of pottery has been generally linked to the Neolithic period and primarily associated with the Old Europe and Middle East, with its earliest introduction believed to have occurred in west Asia (Ganj Darreh in western Iran) (circa 7300 BC.) (Rudgley 2000:28; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). In such a context, pottery, together with a craft of weaving, polished stone tools, a sedentary lifestyle (permanent settlements), religion, monuments, and domesticated plants or animals, is still used to describe Neolithic cultures around the world, conventionally appearing around 10000-8000 BC. (Solovyeva 2017:157; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2021). Nevertheless, as it is supported by archaeological finds, an invention of pottery had already taken place much earlier, surely in the Palaeolithic, and further eastwards, more precisely in north-east Asia, including the Amur River basin in Eastern Russia (eastern Siberia), China (Jiangxi, a southeast Chinese province) and Japan (Rudgley 2000:28-29; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2; Norman 2004-2021).
Yet before 1960, it was believed that the earliest Japanese pottery came back from around 2500 BC. (Omoto, Takeishi, Nishida, Fukui 2016:534). But when the so-called Jōmon pottery from the site of Natsushima (Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture) was radiocarbon dated back to around 7000 BC., it turned out to be a real watershed in the archaeology of prehistory (Rudgley 2000:28). Other contemporary excavations at Fukui Cave in Nagasaki Prefecture not only revealed shreds of pottery, which were around 3000 years older than those from Natsushima (Serizawa 1976:2; Kobayashi 2004:9), but also proved “a direct continuity from [the microlithic culture of] the late Japanese Palaeolithic, [showing] a strong communality with the mainland […], to the [times of the] pottery-using [Jōmon]” (Kobayashi 2004:9,12,14). Further archaeological finds of undecorated pottery fragments in a charcoal residue at the Odai-Yamamoto Site (Sotogahama Town, Aomori Prefecture), pushed the beginnings of Japanese pottery even earlier in time to around 13000 BC. (Jomon Japan 2017). Still the oldest examples of undecorated, simple pottery vessels of the Jōmon culture are said to have been first produced around the same time, at the site of Shinonouchi in Nagano (Cartwright 2017) and at the sites in southern Kyūshū (Kakoinohara in Kagoshima Prefecture) (Kobayashi 2004:15-17,19). At the time of the mentioned excavations, the fact of the earliest pottery finds in Japan simultaneously questioned a common idea about a cultural predominance of ancient China over Japan in terms of innovations (Rudgley 2000:28-29). And although continuous excavations proved that pottery fragments also appeared in eastern Siberia around the same time as the Japanese evidence of earthenware vessels, and even earlier (c. 18 000 BC.) in southern China, pottery of the Jōmon culture in Japan is treated as an archaeological phenomenon and often referred to as the earliest pottery in the world (Norman 2004-2021; Rudgley 2000:29; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2,19; cf. Kenrick 1995), though it should be rather called the earliest pottery tradition due to its continuous development over thousands of years (Lewis 23rd September, 2021).
The Jōmon period, which covers a vast expanse of time of approximately thirteenth thousands years (Palmer 2007:49), can roughly fall within the Neolithic time range in Europe or in the Middle East, and so it is usually described as “Japan’s Neolithic period” (MET 2022; see: Solovyeva 2017:157; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2; Bleed 1976:107). Still, it is important to mention that at its earliest stages, it overlaps with European and Middle Eastern Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods (Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). Bleed (1976:107) simultaneously claims that describing the entire Jōmon period as Neolithic is actually “unfortunate” and incorrect. Accordingly, if the agricultural revolution constitutes one of the significant aspects recognising the period of Neolithic, the Japanese Neolithic should only refer to the period with the end of the Jōmon culture, between 900 BC. and 300 AD., when the Yayoi culture introduced the agriculture and started to cultivate white rice (Lewis 23rd September, 2021; Kobayashi 2004:133; cf. Barton 2012).
The Jōmon culture is the earliest one that we can identify in Japan. Yet it is little known about it because it was unfamiliar with the writing (Burns 2017). For this reason, the main source of knowledge about it are archaeological finds, such as pottery (Ibid.). Conventional time frames given for the Jōmon culture usually differ, depending on a given source (Cf: Solovyeva 2017:157; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). The chronology shown below is provided by scholars, such as Tatsuo Kobayashi (2004:5, Fig.1.2) and ChungHae Amana Oh (2011:35), and has been established basing on estimated radiocarbon dates from the last decade of the twentieth century (Amana Oh 2011:35). Accordingly, the Jōmon culture spans between 13600 BC. to 900 BC. and is traditionally divided into the subsequent periods: Incipient (13600-9200 BC.), Initial (9200-5300 BC.), Early (5300-3500), Middle (3500-2500), Late (2500-1200 BC.), and Final (1200-900BC.), when the Jōmon style wares and statues were gradually replaced by Yayoi pottery (ChungHae 2011:35, Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2).
The Jōmon culture came into existence with the end of the Last Glacial Period, and when it was in a gradual process of development, the Global Warming with significant climate change had already begun (Kobayashi 2004:1; Jomon Japan 2017). Consequently, sea levels rose in the contemporary world, causing in the region the inflow of the warm Tsushima Current into the Sea of Japan, and furthermore the growth of abundant forests of beech, chestnut, walnut and acorn in the Japanese archipelago (Kobayashi 2004:19). With time, “the ocean moved further inland, bringing with it [additional wealth] of fish and shellfish” (Jomon Japan 2017). Such favourable climate changes allowed contemporary groups of humans to use and “[manipulate] the resources available to them in the natural environment” (Kobayashi 2004:3). Jōmon groups initially led a nomadic and then a semi-sedentary life (MET 2022; Jomon Japan 2017); at that time, they built their villages composed of “pit dwellings arranged around central open spaces” (MET 2022), mostly along the ocean coast or along rivers and lakes, and obtained their food by gathering and fishing, collecting shellfish and hunting (Jomon Japan 2017). There was no need to move further, as they could dispose a large quantity of natural resources in one place, being usually stored in deep house pits (Kobayashi 2004:21). Kobayashi (2004:21) speculates that Jōmon peoples could have lined their storage pits with clay, as in the case of the West Asian Natufian culture, and so the Jōmon pottery could have originated from Japanese peoples’ observations that protruding fragments of the clay-lining hardened by the heat from nearby ovens (Ibid.:21). Or, there was a case when a piece of clay from the house wall (e.g. Ganji Darehor) or one dropped from the clay lining of a basket (e.g. North American southwest), was accidentally burnt and fire-hardened (Ibid.:21). Consequently, the Jōmon culture could have started processing clay wider to finally use it as a substance for containers (Ibid.:21). Although these are only some of speculations about actual foundations of pottery in Japan (Ibid.:21), they may constitute “a clue to the origins of pottery making in this region” (Ibid.:21).
Gradual increase in temperatures in Japan resulted in further remarkable inventions (Kobayashi 2004:7), such as “adoption of revolutionary new technologies and tools” (Ibid.:7). Typical of the Jōmon culture was an innovative way of cooking by means of pottery, which allowed them with time to initiate a typically sedentary lifestyle (Jomon Japan 2017). Accordingly, greater settlements were established, together with constant residential centres, sometimes featuring graveyards (e.g. Kakinoshima Site, Hakodate City, Hokkaido), and later also impressive monuments in the form of stone circles (e.g. Oyu Stone Circle, Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture or Kiusu Earthwork Burial Circles, Chitose City, Hokkaido) (Ibid.).
According to the archaeological evidence, It is said that groups of people who produced the earliest pottery mainly inhabited the main Japanese island of Honshu, though the centre of the mature Jōmon culture was more likely established in southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku (northern end of Honshu) (e.g. Irie Takasago Shell Midden, Toyako, Town, Hokkaido or Futasumori Shell Midden, Shichinohe Town, Aomori Prefecture) (Jomon Japan 2017). Such a hypothesis is also supported by the fact that, despite that Honshu and Hokkaido areas had been divided by the Tsugaru Strait, different Jōmon peoples from these areas produced pottery of comparable shapes and by using analogous designs (Ibid.).
The Jōmon pottery was produced by hand, by employing turntables but without the use of a proper wheel, which had been unknown in Japan till the Yayoi phase of development (Kobayashi 2004:77; MET 2022). “The clay was mixed with a variety of adhesive materials, including mica, lead, fibres, and crushed shells, [and when] completely dry, [the pottery] was fired in an outdoor bonfire at a temperature of no more than about 900°C” (MET 2022). Kobayashi (2004:21) compares the earliest Japanese pottery manufacture to a contemporary process of baking a cake of crushed nuts and water. The Jōmon pottery is characterised by a cord pattern and hence the name of the culture – ‘Jōmon’, which stands for a ‘cord design’ (MET 2022). Apart from pottery vessels, also typical of the Jōmon culture were intriguing “[clay] figurines […] and other ritual [objects], demonstrating a rich spirituality” (Jomon Japan 2017). Most recognisable of all are definitely the so-called Dogu. Some researchers believe such pottery clay figures actually represent divine ancestors of the ancient Japanese (Burns 2017).
Shintō, the traditional native religion of Japan based on Japanese mythology, can be translated as the way of gods, literally kami-no-michi, where kami means gods (Shintō 2022). Hence, Japanese people believe in kami celestial beings who are still to reside in modern Japan (Burns 2017). According to an ancient Japanese tradition, there are millions of Kami; each has its own personal characteristics and can inhabit different entities, such as people and animals, or even objects (Ibid.). They come down to earth from Takama-ga-hara (High Plain of Heaven), and inhabit Jinja, which are in the Japanese Shintō religion places of worship devoted to various kami (Ibid.). Kami, in turn, are usually thought to be represented as the Dogu figurines (Ibid.). Around 15,000 Dogu representations in the form of various human-like creatures have been found throughout Japan (Ibid.). Also, according to alternative researchers, Dogu are surely to represent the mythological Kami that visited the earth in ancient times; they have goggle-like eyes and their bodies are covered with rivets, which may indicate an outfit or a type of an armour.
“While the many excavations of Jōmon sites have added to our knowledge of specific artifacts, they have not helped to resolve certain fundamental questions concerning the people of the protoliterate era, such as their ethnic classification and the [actual origins] of their language [and of phenomenal pottery vessels and clay figurines they unceasingly produced]” (MET 2022).
Edwina Palmer (2007:49) suggests that while discussing Jōmon Japanese culture, one should use plural Jōmon peoples as the term should be understood as various groups of “the population spanning at least thirteen millennia across the whole of the present Japanese archipelago”(Ibid.:49). The author also believes “that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that some [Jōmon groups] spoke an Austronesian language or languages” (Ibid.:49). Such assumptions have resulted from a long-term debate on the origins of the Jōmon culture in Japan (Cf. Palmer 2007). Scholars, like Charles Loring Brace et al. (1990) and Peter Bellwood (1997) supported an ‘Out of Taiwan’ hypothesis, postulating that Jōmon culture might have been established by migrations from Taiwan (Palmer 2007:47-49). Simultaneously, it is claimed that in the Jōmon period, some groups travelled by sea from Sundaland (modern-day Southeast Asia) due to a postglacial flooding and eventually settled down on the islands of present-day Japan (Ibid.:47). Even though these two theories seem contradictory, Palmer (2007:47) assumes that “an ‘Out of Sunda’ scenario of migration to Japan in the [Jōmon] period is not necessarily entirely incompatible with an ‘Out of Taiwan’ theory” (Ibid.:47). And so she concludes that there must have been numerous migrations in Japan during a long-time Jōmon period, according to “[a] common-sense approach […] that humans were never traveling in only one direction at any time […]” (Ibid.:48). Such an approach “may, [at the same time], accommodate many aspects of the various theories proposed” (Ibid.:48). Similarly, it is underlined by Ryan W. Schmidt and Noriko Seguchi (2014:43), who claim that the Jōmon culture was rather like an ethnic mosaic composed of various Palaeolithic peoples migrating to the islands of Japan, and so “in this respect, the biological identity of the Jōmon is heterogeneous, and it may be indicative of diverse peoples who belonged to a common culture, known as the [Jōmon]” (Ibid.:43). That, in turn, agrees with the claim that “the [Jōmon] revolution, [creating pottery], did not arise from [an isolated] microlithic culture in the archipelago, nor was it the result of just a single wave of influence from the continent, but rather a [consequence] of several phases of intervention and interaction” (Kobayashi 2004:14). Consequently, there were hypotheses the pottery could have originated in the continental East Asia, invented independently by different groups of people, and then brought with numerous waves of migrations to contemporary Japan and consequently adopted by its inhabitants (Ibid.:19).
The Jōmon pottery is generally distinguished by its characteristics (Cartwright 2017) “that [clearly identify its makers] and [set] them apart from all other [later] Japanese [or contemporary Asian] cultures” (Bleed 1976:107), including the first cases of pottery in Western Asia (Kobayashi 2004:20). A suggested similarity of the Jōmon pottery to examples found in eastern Siberia, China, the Korean peninsula or Taiwan has been challenged, adding to that the pottery in Japan is generally dated earlier than in most parts of contemporary East Asia (except for China and Siberia), where its invention was possibly a result of analogous technologies (Palmer 2007:48; Kobayashi 2004:19; Rudgley 2000:28-29; Norman 2004-2021). Only later, like in the Early Jōmon period, “[similarities] between pottery produced in Kyūshū and contemporary Korea suggest that regular commerce existed between the Japanese islands and the Korean peninsula, [together with the Mainland Southeast Asia]” (MET 2022). It is also theorised that the earliest pottery may have been invented independently in various locations in East Asia, with eastern Siberia, China and the Japanese archipelago in the lead (Kobayashi 2004:20). Moreover, by studying the origins of pottery in Neolithic Middle East, it can be analogically assumed that the Jōmon pottery could also have had a few different foundations (Chosuke in Kobayashi 2004:20).
On the other side, the question of the earliest pottery finds ascribed to the Jōmon culture between the Incipient and Initial periods appears much more complex in terms of its different but subsequential decorative styles (Bleed 1976:108), such as “linear relief, fingernail impression, and simple cord marking” (Ibid.:108). Such pottery remains were usually unearthed further from the said mature Jōmon centre (Jomon Japan 2017), namely, in the area from southern Tohoku to Kyūshū (Bleed 1976:108), which is the region considered “the forefront of the [Jōmon] revolution” (Kobayashi 2004:17). Additionally, it is evident that such early examples of pottery were made by peoples with divergent tools, technologies and skills (Bleed 1976:109). “In sum, […] all the evidence available indicates that during [the Incipient period in Japan, the Jōmon culture] continued to be [highly] complex […], characterized by regionally diverse and distinctive technologies. This kind of complexity and regional diversity is also apparent during the succeeding cultural horizon, [when throughout] central Honshu, fingernail-impressed pottery was [subsequently] replaced by ceramics finished with simple exterior cord marking” (Ibid.:109). Generally, foremost features of the Jōmon pottery and its technological homogeneity are more widely observed only with its later stages (Cf. Bleed 1976), yet, “the population of Jōmon Japan [remained] by no means [anthropologically] homogeneous” (Palmer 2007:49).
In conclusion, the invention and continuity of the Jōmon pottery mostly resulted from the plentiful environment of the Japanese archipelago, together with its effective adaptation and development by independent groups of contemporary humans (Shinpei in: Kobayashi 2004:19; Bleed 1976:113). Kobayashi (2004:20) compares the invention of Jōmon pottery to the so-called ‘springboard principle’, where a technological knowledge of manufacturing earthenware vessels met the actual human needs for such a product (Cf. Kohler in: Kobayashi 2004:20). Yet, apart from being regarded as a product of a technological development, playing mostly a functional role as a container and a cooking vessel, the early Japanese pottery should be equally seen as the beginning of the Jōmon cultural revolution, and so could be interpreted wider, by means of social, economic, religious and artistic ways of expression (Kobayashi 2004:12,22).
Featured image: Reconstruction of the Sannai-Maruyama Site in the Aomori Prefecture. The site shares cultural similarities with settlements of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula, as well as with later Japanese culture, pointing to continuity between ancient and modern Japanese culture. Photo by 663highland (2014). CC BY 2.5. In: ‘Jōmon period’, in Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2022).
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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