The World’s First Pottery Created in Jomon, Japan

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.

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.

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.


Image: Niigata Prefectural Museum of History

Jomon / Stone Axes – Niigata Prefecture

The Jomon made chipped and ground stone tools, traps, bows and arrows, and were skilled coastal and offshore fishermen. Lithic technology and micro-blade technology closely resembles that from the Late Upper Paleolithic of Japan and Siberia. Axes with polished stone edges, stone drills, arrow heads and arrow shaft smoothers can be identified. The axes were not weapons; they were used to dig up edible tubers and roots from the forest floor.

Image: Niigata Prefectural Museum of History


Incipient Jomon, Pottery Vessel/Niigata Prefectural Museum of History

Hunting was a primary activity, with Shika deer taken in winter and wild boar hunted throughout the year. Widely deployed pit traps and, later, hunting dogs were used to hunt a great diversity of animals. Earliest Jomon often lived in caves and were semi-nomadic. The earliest shelters that the Jomon constructed were small pit houses which appear in their second period – Early Jomon, 8000- 5,000 B.C. They are no more than 5’ in diameter with a thatched roof supported by wooden posts. Recognizable villages and shell middens, refuse for future archeologists to dig into and ponder, also appear in the Early Jomon. The shell middens tell us that shellfish were collected everywhere: cockles, limpets, clams and oysters were among the more than 350 species eaten, most often in the spring.

In later Jomon cultural phases, dogs were domesticated and used for hunting. They were not food animals, but were highly valued, and dog burials have been found. There is a possibility that boars were partially domesticated after 7,000 B.C. Before that date there are no boars on the Izu Islands or Sado Island. Afterwards, boar remains were found on both Island localities. Boars are poor swimmers, and speculation suggests they were deliberately brought to the island, if only for release to establish local wild populations that the Jomon could hunt.

Image: Niigata Prefectural Museum of History

Slide Show Tour of Replica Village, Final Jomon Period – in Japanese

Pottery Invented in the Incipient Jomon Period, Ancient Japan

Why pottery making was invented in this place and time may never be understood. Pottery with ‘cord impression’ decoration was made by the first Jomon culture, an archeological period known as Incipient Jomon, 14,000 to 7500 B.C. The oldest, securely dated Jomon pottery is 46 pottery shards from a single vessel that were found at the Odai-Yamamoto site. They are dated to 16,500 B.C and have only a few incised lines for decoration.

The Jomon Culture, and we presume a distinctive Jomon people as well, persisted for a very long time because the Final Jomon Period does not end until 300 B.C. Pottery is not common in Incipient Jomon sites; it was made infrequently. Later Jomon cultures produced exquisite pottery with sophisticated decoration patterns and images, art objects that rank with the finest produced anywhere and some of which have been designated National Treasures by the Japanese government.


Image: Niigata Prefectural Museum of History


Incipient Jomon / Pottery Vessel – Niigata Prefectural Museum of History

Most early Jomon pots are small vessels with round bases which we can easily imagine were placed into a fire to cook and boil food. The starchy, fibrous tubers dug up in the forest could now be made edible by boiling, as they are too tough to eat raw.

Jomon clay vessels were fired at low temperature. Some pottery of the Incipient Jomon Period was not decorated. A sequence of pottery decorative techniques unfolds through these earliest Jomon centuries: bean appliqué was followed by a linear appliqué decorative pattern and then a decorative design that could only have been made by pressing into the clay with fingernails. At the end of the Incipient Jomon Period, the first flat base vessels with thick rims appear and they have cord markings all over their surface. Clay earrings were also made.

Image: Aoyama Wahei/ Copyright 1998 – 2007, Robert Yellin/Yakimono Gallery

Incipient Jomon / Oatsu Pottery Vessel – Niigata Prefectural Museum of History

There are over 80 Jomon archeological sites in Japan and most of the pottery comes from later Jomon periods. Earliest Jomon cultural phases are unremarkable except for this one extraordinary development. The first Jomon were typical early Mesolithic hunter gatherers, efficiently exploiting the many resources in their local environment – a fine illustration of sustainability. Early in their history, they invented fire hardened pottery and the world would never be the same afterward as the technology spread across the planet. When the Jomon archeological record finally disappears, a new culture has arrived from East Asia, bringing with it a new agriculture and innovative technologies. The Jomon people, of course remained.


Image: CGI Bennett/Blumenberg Associates LLC


Museum Gallery tour with Jomon pottery from all periods. Fine examples of dogu, small human and animal figurines

The Ainu of Hokkaido

On the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, there still lives an indigenous people who were known as Ainu to feudal Japan. Lighter of skin, with different physical features than the Japanese, and possessing a distinctive language and mythopoetics, Ainu origins have been difficult to uncover. Modern anthropological genetics has confirmed they are not a surviving remnant of an early Japanese people.