The World’s First Pottery Created in Jomon, Japan


Image: Aoyama Wahei /

Jomon Hand-Patterned, Hachi Vase / Gunma Prefecture

Fire and Clay

Only a few inventions have changed the course of history and set human culture upon a new trajectory. Some of these inventions are ancient and hardly dramatic at first glance. Such quiet creative breakthroughs of the human mind stand in contrast to the march of empires, kings and wars that often dominate the historical time line. The invention of pottery is one of these paradigmatic changes. The craft of making objects from fire hardened clay created a paradigm shift in culture after which history could never be the same.

Fire hardened vessels don’t leak unless cracked, and they often last a very long time. The evolution of diet and cooking dramatically accelerated when pottery vessels were available. New methods for food preservation and storage, cooking baking, boiling, and brewing fostered a great diversity in food preparation. Pottery also became both a ‘tablet’ and an artistic medium, upon which either daily records or sacred symbols could be recorded. Furthermore, fire hardened vessels bind the clan closer to village life because pottery objects are fragile and cannot easily integrate in large numbers with a nomadic, hunter-gatherer life style.

Image: Petr Novák / Wikipedia

Upper Paleolithic Czechoslovakia / Venus Dolni Vestonice / earliest ceramic

Before pottery the ever active, human ‘big brain’ invented ceramics. Archeologists have a good candidate for that ‘First’ in history. The oldest known ceramic object is the Venus of Dolní Vestonice, a small female figurine found in 1925 in the excavation of a Gravettian Paleolithic settlement of the same name in the Moravian basin south of Brno, Czechoslovakia. It is dated 23-27,000 B.C and is a small figurine at 4.4” tall (a personal amulet?) that depicts an abstraction of the female figure that emphasizes fertility.

There are other figurines at Dolní Vestonice that are much more common: bears, lions, mammoths, horses, foxes, rhino and owls, and also more than 2,000 balls of burnt clay. The making of small figurines was important to this culture, but depicting the human form was almost never done. The clay was fired at low temperature and there is no evidence that this Gravettian culture made pottery.


Image: Niigata Prefectural Museum of History

Incipient Jomon / Pottery from Niigata Prefecture

Jomon Culture – Earliest Culture and Lifestyles

The invention of pottery occurred on the other side of the world in Japan, in an ancient culture known as the Jomon. The Jomon Period occupied a long span of Japanese history from 14,000 B.C. to 400 B.C. Land bridges persisted with the Asian mainland until c.12,.000 B.C. Jomon ancestors walked slowly to Japan from East Asia, hunting and fishing every day as their nomadic culture had done for thousands of years.

‘Jomon’ means ‘cord patterned’, or ‘cord impressed’. Jomon potters decorated their clay vessels by marking/pressing into clay with sticks wrapped with cords. The Jomon were hunter gatherers but semi-sedentary. Their tribal/clan culture is as expected for their location and time in Japan. However, look under the hood and we find extraordinary inventiveness. Jomon artistic talent was also exceptional and later Jomon potters produced magnificent vessels with a sophisticated refined design such as the beautiful vase that is the lead image for this post.