Japan's first Jomon potters

Cord blimey: new light on the earliest vessels made by hunter-gatherers.

Conventional scholarly wisdom long held that ceramic technology (pot making) first came into being with the switch from hunting/foraging to settled farming, some 11,000 years ago. This notion assumed that clay vessels were fragile and could not readily be moved by ever-mobile hunter-gatherers, in part from the complications of the technology and firing the finished vessels.

However, we now know that the early Jomon people of Japan were making pottery far earlier, by at least 14,000 years ago, with the ancient vessels from Tanegashima Island. The latest research adds a new dimension to the story. It shows that while most of the pots found on Tanegashima Island were made locally, about 10 to 14 percent of the ceramics came from other islands, as if they were traded from elsewhere in southern Kyushu.

At the time, the local climate was relatively benign, for the grip of Ice Age cold had loosened. The potters used heavy grinding stones and dwelt in pit houses – both signs of increased sedentism. Numerous stone spear pits as well as grinders suggest a diet that relied both on game and plant foods, including nuts.

Carbonised encrustations on the inner surfaces of some potsherds yield traces of game meat and plant foods, as if the people collected and consumed a broad array of foods, which must have included fish from the nearby ocean. Interestingly, a similar emphasis on a broad spectrum of foods is found in Southwest Asia and elsewhere in the centuries before agriculture and animal husbandry.

Want more in-depth archaeology? Enjoy Archaeology Worldwide magazine. PS see the current issue (#6) for a full-length feature on the intriguing Jomon of Japan, written by NYT best-selling author, Brian Fagan.

A reconstructed Incipient Jomon vessel (about 14,000-12,800 years old).

Credit: Fumie Iizuka