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Kenichi Kobayashi

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When Did Pottery Appear? Exploring a Groundbreaking Event in the History of Human Culture

Kenichi Kobayashi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Japanese archaeology

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When Was Pottery Invented?

The invention of pottery is one of the great turning points in human history, following the invention of fire, the invention of language and the use of natural materials such as stone, bone and wood as tools. Fashioned out of clay into containers that could hold liquids without leaking, ceramics were the first chemically-altered products that humans possessed. Pottery led to the development of human culture, making it possible to store food after it had been cooked and producing a flowering of artistic expression, including the creation of clay figures and the application of decorative patterns. Our understanding of the historical significance of the invention of pottery has changed dramatically due to archeological discoveries that have been made over the last ten years or so.

Pottery first appeared in the Japanese archipelago at the beginning of the Jomon period (1). The Jomon period has traditionally been understood as a period of time when a unique Neolithic culture, which had pottery but did not practice agriculture, inhabited a postglacial environment. According to the currently accepted theory found in high school textbooks, the Jomon period began about ten thousand years ago at the end of the Ice Age when large animals died out and forests composed of evergreen broadleaf and deciduous broadleaf trees took their place. In response to this environmental change, Paleolithic nomads whose way of life had revolved around hunting large animals started gathering nuts and other plant foods and cooking and eating them in ceramic pots. These people began settling in certain regions, taking up a sedentary way of life. Advancements in carbon-14 dating and other kinds of research over the past decade, however, have set the age of pottery without any pattern from the Odai Yamamoto I site in Aomori prefecture at over fifteen thousand years. The pottery at this site is now recognized as one of the earliest reliably dated examples of pottery ever found. Pottery made over fifteen thousand years ago by the Osipovka culture has also been discovered in the Amur River basin in the Siberian region of Russia, and pottery that may be between fifteen thousand and eighteen thousand years old has been found in a cave site in Hunan Province, China. Moreover, in July this year, the journal Science reported that pottery from the Xianrendong cave site in Jiangxi Province, China may date back as far as twenty thousand years, based on the dating results of carbonized materials found in the same strata (2). Twenty thousand years ago coincides with the peak of the last ice age, a frigid period when plant-derived foods were scarce. The advent of pottery, then, would have occurred right at the height of the Ice Age. If such is the case, we need to reconsider the theory that has been accepted until now that "pottery was invented to boil nuts after the climate became warmer."

Why Pottery Was Invented

The sites discovered in southern China, the Amur River basin and eastern Honshu in Japan with early pottery dating back more than fifteen thousand years are the oldest pottery sites in the world. Since these regions are isolated from each other, researchers believe that pottery arose independently at multiple sites in the latter half of the Ice Age. During this time, the landscape was still dominated by the coniferous forests of the Ice Age, and other types of flora, such as the deciduous broadleaf trees that produced nuts like acorns and chestnuts, were scarce. Pottery on the Japanese archipelago was distributed along rivers into inland areas and is thus probably unrelated to the pottery that arose in Russia's Amur River basin, which is thought to have been invented for collecting fish oil from boiled fish. Researchers theorize that pottery was invented in regionally distinct ways in central China, the Japanese archipelago and the Amur River basin as an efficient means for consuming moss, bark and the few plant-derived foods that were available in order to cope with the harsh conditions that lasted from the middle of the Ice Age until its end.

Characteristics of the Emergence of Pottery in East Asia and the Japanese Archipelago

Pottery in West Asia was invented about nine thousand years ago as a means to store food after the emergence of agriculture and livestock farming. According to the European point of view of the history of civilization, with its emphasis on the importance of agriculture, pottery was merely a byproduct of agriculture. The renowned archaeologist V. Gordon Childe considered the invention of agriculture and livestock farming to be at the center of the "Neolithic revolution." It seems this view, however, needs to be re-examined. We know that the emergence of pottery in East Asia was unrelated to the rise of agriculture, but the driving force behind its emergence still needs to be investigated. The invention of pottery as an adaptation to the environment and a technological tool was a momentous event in not only the history of the Japanese archipelago, but the development of human history. In contrast to southern China and the Amur River basin, where there was not a direct continuation of early pottery in later cultures, the pottery that appeared in the Japanese archipelago continued on in the ceramic cultures after incipient Jomon period. Pottery triggered the beginning of a sedentary way of life and the development of bows and arrows (3), giving rise to the Jomon culture that has served as the foundation of Japanese society up to the present day. Researchers explain this continuity by reasoning that the use of pottery afforded the most effective survival strategy in eastern Japan as the climate became warmer and lush deciduous broadleaf forests spread throughout the region. By using pottery to boil and store food, people were able to weather the two periods of rapid warming and cooling that occurred at the end of the Ice Age and caused a six-degree change in the average temperature between fifteen thousand years and twelve thousand years ago. The Jomon culture that adapted itself to the bountiful natural environment of the Japanese archipelago did not adopt full-scale agriculture for a long period of time, making it unique among other prehistoric cultures in world history. The Jomon people focused their activities on hunting and gathering, living in coexistence with nature as they gradually advanced toward a primitive agricultural stage. These conditions produced a stable society with few wars and other social stresses. Trade and other kinds of networks encouraged the development of ceramic cultures in every region of Japan, including the Kanto region, the Tohoku region, and the central and western regions of Japan. The Jomon culture has left the people living in the Japanese archipelago with a unique historical background, and the emergence of pottery that gave rise to this culture can be regarded as a groundbreaking historical event.

The farther we go back in history, the fewer are the facts we can be certain about, and this may make archaeology seem like a crude discipline. Our view of history is frequently being revised through new discoveries and analyses. Researchers never imagined that pottery could have been invented so long ago. I hope you, too, develop an interest in the fascinating process of reconstructing history with each new fact we discover.

  • (1) Kenichi Kobayashi, Yuichiro Kudo and the National Museum of Japanese History, When Did the Jomon Period Begin?! Changes in the Global Environment and the Jomon Culture [Jomon wa Itsu kara?! Chikyu Kankyo no Hendo to Jomon Bunka], Shinsensha, 2011.
  • (2) Xiaohong Wu, Chi Zhang, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, Yan Pan, Trina Arpin and Ofer Bar-Yosef, "Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China," Science 29 (June 2012), Vol. 336, pp. 1696-1700.
  • (3) Kenichi Kobayashi, The Beginning of the Jomon Culture: The Kamikuroiwa Rock Shelter Site [Jomon Bunka no Hajimari: Kamikuroiwa Iwakage Iseki], Shinsensha, 2010.
Kenichi Kobayashi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Japanese archaeology
Born in Kanagawa prefecture in 1960. Graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Keio University in 1983. Received his master's degree from the Graduate School of Letters, Keio University in 1987.
Earned a Doctor of Letters degree from the School of Cultural Science, Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI) in 2004.
Served as an assistant at Keio University and Kanazawa University and worked as an assistant professor at the National Museum of Japanese History before assuming his current position in 2008. His current area of research is the study of prehistoric societies in Japan (from the Jomon period to the Yayoi period), with a focus on the reconstruction of prehistoric cultures using carbon-14 dating.
His major publications include New Perspective of Study on Jomon Society (Rokuichi Shobo, 2004) and Investigating the Jomon Way of Life through Excavations [Hakkutsu de Saguru Jomon no Kurashi] (Chuo University Press, 2011).