Dolni Vestonice ceramic Venus

Early modern humans began sculpting monuments and figures from stone, bone, antler and ivory, beginning around 40,000 years ago. Portable art objects like statues may have helped clan leaders impart the oral tradition of their people. One anthropologist called them "illustrations without books."

Ivory was used almost exclusively to create adornments, not weapons or tools. Modern humans developed various techniques for working ivory, including drilling, gouging, carving and polishing it with metallic abrasives such as hematite. Some items have been found hundreds of miles from their sources, which seems to indicate that some form of trade existed.

In 1912, fantastic sculptures of bison were found by three boys exploring the Volp River, where it went underground near Entere in the Pyrenees foothills. Carved sculptures made of bone, ivory, clay and stone between 16,000 and 9,000 years ago at the museum in Le Eyzies France include a bison licking insect bite on its back; a pride of lions complete with whiskers and ear hair carved on an animal rib; rearing horse adorning spear thrower; and rare bear and turtle carving. [Source: Kenneth Weaver, National Geographic, November 1985]

A 12,000-year-old section of a reindeer antler from Montgaudier cave in France contains elaborate engravings of seals, salmon, and snakes with genitalia. The “ Löwenmensch” , or “Lion-human,” is foot-tall sculpture with the head and upper body of a cave lion and the upright stature and legs of a person. Carved from a mammoth tusk, it was found at Hohlenstein-Stadel, a site near Vogelherd, Germany in 1939.

Categories with related articles in this website:
Modern Humans 400,000-20,000 Years Ago (35 articles); First Villages, Early Agriculture and Bronze, Copper and Late Stone Age Humans (33 articles); Neanderthals, Denisovans, Hobbits, Stone Age Animals and Paleontology (25 articles); Early Hominins and Human Ancestors (23 articles)

Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings ; Cave of Lascaux; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA); Bradshaw Foundation; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Evolution of Modern Humans ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution;

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS; The Neanderthal Museum ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink . Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Dolni Vestonice

Statuette of a woman from Hoyucek Tongeren
Some of earliest known ceramics were found at Dolni Vestonice and Pavlove, hill sites in the Czech Republic that were the home of prehistoric seasonal camps. Thousands of fragments of human figures, as well as the kilns that produced them have been found in sites in Moravia in what is now Russia the Czech Republic. Some have been dated to be 26,000 years old. The figurines were made from moistened loess, a fine sediment, and fired at high temperatures. Predating the first known ceramic vessels by 10,000 years, the figurines, some scientists believe, were produced and exploded on purpose based on the fact that most of the sculptures have been found in pieces.

Dolni Vestonice in Czech Republic, a site been dated to 27,000 B.C., has been called the world’s oldest village but most scholars argue is too small and too rudimentary to qualify as a village or town. In any case a number of important discoveries related to early man have been found there. See Man.

Dolni Vestonice is the site of the earliest known potter’s kiln. Carved and molded images of animals, women, strange engravings, personal ornaments, and decorated graves have been found scattered over several acres at the site. In the main hut, where the people ate and slept, two items were found: a goddess figurine made of fired clay and a small and cautiously carved portrait made from mammoth ivory of a woman whose face was drooped on one side. The goddess figurine is the oldest known baked clay figurine. On top of its head are holes which may have held grasses or herbs. The potter scratched two slits that stretched from the eyes to the chest which were thought to be the life-giving tears of the mother goddess. [Source:]

Some of the sculpture may represent the first example of portraiture (representation of an actual person). One such figure, carved in mammoth ivory, is roughly three inches high. The subject appears to be a young man with heavy bone structure, thick, long hair reaching past his shoulders, and possibly the traces of a beard. Particle spectrometry analysis dated it to be around 29,000 years old. [Source: Wikipedia]

The remains of a kiln was found on an encampment in a small, dry-hut, whose door faced towards the east. Scattered around the oven were many fragments of fired clay. Remains of clay animals, some stabbed as if hunted, and other pieces of blackened pottery still bear the fingerprints of the potter.

The archeological site of Dolni Vestonice was located on a swamp at the confluence of two rivers near the Moravian mountains near present-day the village of Dolni Vestonice. In 1986, the remains of three teenagers were discovered in a common grave dated to be around 27,650 years old. Two of the skeletons belonged to heavily built males while the third was judged to be a female based on its slender proportions. Archaeologists who examined her skeletal remains found evidence of a stroke or other illness which left her painfully crippled and her face deformed. The two males had died healthy, but remains of a thick wooden pole thrust through the hip of one of them suggests a violent death.

The female skeleton was ritualistically placed beneath a pair of mammoth scapulae, one leaning against the other. The bones and the earth surrounding it contained traces of red ocher, a flint spearhead had been placed near the skull and one hand held the body of a fox. This evidence indicates that this was the burial site of a shaman. This is regarded as the oldest evidence of female shamans.

World’s Oldest Sculptures

Venus of vom Hohlen Fels
The world's first sculptures were palm-sized carvings made of bone, horn and stone. They were mostly shaped by being chipped away with flint tools. Perhaps older carvings were made of wood but if they did exist they likely rotted and have been lost to time.

The world's oldest known sculpture is an animal head carved in wooly rhinoceros vertebrae. Found in Tombaga Siberia, it has been dated to be 34,960 years old. The world's oldest stone figure is a 31,790-year-old serpentine female statuette from Glagneberg Austria. Several 32,000-year-old sophisticated ivory human and animal figures have been found in Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geissenklösterle and Vogelherd caves in southern Germany. [Source: Guinness Book of Records]

A 33,000-year-old horse carving made from mammoth ivory, found in Vogelherd cave, may have been used as pendant or a totem. Features on it were worn down by repeated human handling. Vogelherd has also yielded carvings of a leopard, a lion, a bear, a mammoth and a crude human figure. Some of the carvings have arrow and spear lines engraved into them which some anthropologists believe symbolizes the spirit that "animal" being killed.

Three small 30,000-year-old figurines carved from of mammoth tusk ivory were found in a cave in the Swabian Mountains near Ulm in southwestern Germany. One is a representation of a horse head. Another is of a bird, possibly a duck or a cormorant. The third is half-animal, half man creature. None is larger than an inch. The find was reported in December 2003.

Other famous early figurines include the 26,000-year-old head of a lion from Moravia in the Czech Republic; and a 25,000-year-old Venus of Brassempou, the head of woman with a hairstyle not so different from those seen today The latter is a fragmentary ivory figurine discovered in a cave at Brassempouy, France in 1892. It is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face.

Vogelherd Sculpture

Vogelherd sculpture

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: Nicholas Conard of Tübingen University “extracts four small pine boxes and sets them gingerly on the table in front of me. Within each sits a tiny carving: a horse, a mammoth, a bison, and a lion. All are from a German cave called Vogelherd. They display a grace and beauty and playfulness that would make any artist today proud. Yet they are 40,000 years old—predating the painted masterpieces of Chauvet by 5,000 years. ““Jaw-dropping,” says Conard, the university’s scientific director of prehistory. “Every piece is different. But when you look at them, it’s obvious they form a coherent whole.” [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015]

“The humans who made these objects were part of a population that left the African homeland some 60,000 years ago, taking a route through the Middle East and what is now Turkey, along the western fringe of the Black Sea, and up the Danube River Valley. As far as we know, nowhere along that journey did they leave signs of an artistic inclination, not even a piece of marked ocher. But once settled some 43,000 years ago in the Lone and Ach River Valleys of southern Germany, they suddenly began to create—not crude etchings but fully realistic animal figurines carved out of mammoth tusk.

“The sources of most of these objects are four caves: Hohle Fels and Geissenklösterle in the Ach Valley, and Hohlenstein-Stadel and Vogelherd in the Lone. Not much more than indentations in the rock face, the caves could easily be missed today by someone driving the backcountry roads that wind through Germany’s southwestern mountains. Lush and green today, the Ach and Lone Valleys 40,000 years ago, at the beginning of a period known as the Aurignacian, were frigid steppe landscapes, dotted with herds of horses, reindeer, and mammoths. In spite of the harsh conditions, the richness of the archaeological sites indicates that population sizes in the Aurignacian were growing. The increases could help explain an apparent flare-up of creativity, not unlike those seen earlier in Africa. Maybe the difficulties these European settlers faced, says Conard, led them to share customs that spread from one group, and generation, to the next. In hard times prized carvings and tools could have smoothed the way toward intertribal marriages, trade, and alliances and helped spread new techniques for hunting, building shelters, and making clothing.

World's Oldest Figurative Art “Pornographic"?

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “In Hohle Fels, Conard’s team recently uncovered some objects whose messages are so sexually explicit they might require a parental warning. One is a carving of a woman with exaggerated breasts and genitalia, found in 2008. At least 35,000 years old, the Venus of Hohle Fels is the most ancient figure yet discovered that is indisputably human. (Two much earlier figurines from Morocco and what is now Israel may be natural rocks that vaguely resemble the human form.) Earlier the team had found a polished rod of siltstone, about eight inches long and an inch in diameter, with a ring etched at one end—likely a phallic symbol. A few feet away from the Venus figurine, Conard’s team uncovered a flute carved from a hollow griffon vulture bone, and in Geissenklösterle Cave found three other flutes, one made of ivory and two fashioned from a swan’s wing bone. They are the oldest known musical instruments in the world. We don’t know whether these people had drugs. But they clearly had the sex and rock and roll. [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015]

Venus from Dolni Vestonice

Eliza Strickland wrote in Discover: “A tiny ivory carving of a busty woman may be not only the oldest known example of erotic art–it may be the oldest art depicting any human figure at all. Named the Venus of Hohle Fels after the cave in southwestern Germany where it was recently excavated, the object dates to at least 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, based on more than 30 radiocarbon measurements conducted at the site [Discovery News]. The statue is also “bordering on the pornographic” by our modern standards, one expert says, with its huge, bulbous breasts and oversized genitalia. [Source: Eliza Strickland, Discover, May 13, 2009]/^\

“Germany’s southern caves were presumably inviting sanctuaries, scholars say, for populations of modern humans migrating then into central and western Europe. These were the people who eventually displaced the resident Neanderthals, around 30,000 years ago. Dr. Conard reported that the discovery was made beneath three feet of red-brown sediment in the floor of the Hohle Fels cave. Six fragments of the carved ivory, including all but the left arm and shoulder, were recovered. When he brushed dirt off the torso, he said, “the importance of the discovery became apparent” [The New York Times]. /^\

“The Venus, which is described in a paper in Nature, was carved from a woolly mammoth tusk, and measures just over two inches long. In place of a head the statue has a polished ring, suggesting that the carving may have been hung from a string and worn like a pendant. The newfound object reminds experts of the most famous of the sexually explicit figurines from the Stone Age, the Venus of Willendorf, discovered in Austria a century ago. It was somewhat larger and dated at about 24,000 years ago, but it was in a style that appeared to be prevalent for several thousand years. Scholars speculate that these Venus figurines, as they are known, were associated with fertility beliefs or shamanistic rituals [The New York Times]. /^\

“Or there may be a simpler explanation for why the Venus of Hohle Fels was carved, argues anthropologist Paul Mellars, who wrote a commentary on the find in Nature. “If there’s one conclusion you want to draw from this, it’s that an obsession with sex goes back at least 35,000 years…. But if humans hadn’t been largely obsessed with sex they wouldn’t have survived for the first 2 million years. None of this is at all surprising” [LiveScience], he says. /^\

“Human-made art goes back further in our history; the first abstract, geometric designs date from around 75,000 years ago. But the jump to figurative art is a significant cognitive step, researchers say, and could be tied to the development of language, another symbolic system. Jill Cook, an expert on ancient figurines, says the Venus “shows that people at this time in Europe had reached a stage in development of the brain which enabled objects to be symbolised and abstracted…. You’re dealing with a mind like ours, but simply a different time and environment” [New Scientist]. /^\

Venus Statues

20120206-Venus_vom_Hohlen_Fels_Original_rechts g.jpg
Venus of vom Hohlen Fels
The oldest known sculptures of human figures are the Upper Paleolithic "Venuses" found in Russia, the Ukraine, Austria, the Ancient Near East, the Czech Republic, Crete, Western Asia, France and the Aegean. Dated to 27,000 to 20,000 years ago, the figurines were usually made of soapstone, limestone, calcite serpentine and ivory. Some were made from ceramics (See Above).

The majority of the figurines were carved between 18,000 and 25,000 depict women. Many depict pregnant women with blank faces, huge breasts and exaggerated sexual parts. Some show the women in positions associated with giving birth. Men were rarely depicted as figurines. They were more likely to be seen in a hunting scene painted on a cave walls.

The first Venus figurines were found in the 1880s in caves near Monaco. Not long after a fat, big breasted Venus was found in Austria that was dated to be 25,000 to 22,000 years old. Most Venus figurines have been found in Central Europe and Russia. Many were found in caves and open-air sites with stone and bone weaponry, ivory jewelry, and the remains of Ice Age animals.

In May 2009, a picture and information in a the oldest known Venus statue was released by the University of Tuebingen. Found in a cave in the German town of Hohle Fels, the figure was carved from mammoth ivory and was dated to be about 35,000 years old. Measuring about 10 centimeters tall and five centimeters wide, it has enormous breasts, belly and hips; a vagina; a chubby, chunky body and a tiny head.

Many Venus statues were perforated at the ankles presumably so they could suspended upside down. The Black Venus is nearly 26,000-years-old figure found in the Czech village of Dolní Vestonice in 1924. Splintered and made of clay, it was found on a hill among charred, fractured mammoth bones.

Meaning of the Venuses

"Until the 1980s," wrote John Noble Wilford in the New York Times, "the favored interpretation related the figurines to fertility. But fertility rites are associated with agricultural societies, and these were hunter-gatherers living thousands of years before crop cultivation...In a hunter-gatherer society, the men, who hunted, often came home empty-handed, which meant that it fell to the women, who gathered, to provide much of the food. Since many of the figurines had holes, and so must have been worn as pendants, men may have carried them on the hunt as reminders of hearth and home. But there is no evidence...that the figurines meant that women were worshipped as goddesses." [Source: John Noble Wilford, the New York Times, February 1, 1994]

Some scientists have even suggested the figurines were some kind of ice age pornography. "That always possible, Dr, Patricia Rice, an anthropologist at West Virginia told the New York Times, "But I say no. If it were, the figurines would have been much more realistic."

Some of the Venuses made from wooly mammoth ivory were found in southern Europe, where the animals did not live. This suggests people near the Mediterranean traded or at least had some contact with the mammoth hunters in northern Europe.

Venuses: Paleolithic Pornography?

20120206-Malta Venus_of_Malta.jpg
Malta Venus
Bob Brockie wrote in The Dominion Post: “Professor Dale Guthrie, from the university of Alaska, and author of The Nature of Paleolithic Art, is surprised that while Paleolithic people were surrounded by plenty of things – babies, men, animals, plants, battle scenes, clan symbols – these things were never represented in their art, only well-endowed women. Guthrie suggests that all the figurines were made by young men and “it’s not too difficult to theorise about what was on their minds in their free time”. He thinks the similarly stylised Venus figures represent a cross-cultural view of women shared by prehistoric Europeans – well prehistoric men – for more than 20,000 years. [Source: Bob, Brockie,The Dominion Post April 9, 2007]

April Nowell told New Scientist Magazine: “The idea that curvaceous figurines are prehistoric pornography is an excuse to legitimise modern behaviour as having ancient roots. The Venus figurines of women, some with exaggerated anatomical features, and ancient rock art, like the image from the Abri Castanet site in France that is supposedly of female genitalia. [Source: April Nowell Jude Isabella, New Scientist Magazine, November 13, 2012 /*]

“People are fascinated by prehistory, and the media want to write stories that attract readers – to use a cliché, sex sells. But when a New York Times headline reads “A Precursor to Playboy: Graphic Images in Rock”, and Discover magazine asserts that man’s obsession with pornography dates back to “Cro-Magnon days” based on “the famous 26,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf statuette…[with] GG-cup breasts and a hippopotamal butt”, I think a line is crossed. To be fair, archaeologists are partially responsible – we need to choose our words carefully. /*\

Multiple Interpretations of the Meaning of Female Figurines

April Nowell told New Scientist Magazine: Upper Palaeolithic figurines “are incredibly varied beyond the few figurines seen over and over again: the Venus of Hohle Fels, the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Dolní Ve?stonice. Some are male, some are female; some are human, some are animals or fantastical creatures; some wear items of clothing, others do not. A recent study by my doctoral student Allison Tripp and her colleague Naomi Schmidt demonstrated that the body shapes of female figurines from around 25,000 years ago correspond to women at many different stages of life; they’re a variety of shapes and sizes. All of this suggests that there are multiple interpretations.[Source: April Nowell Jude Isabella, New Scientist Magazine, November 13, 2012. Nowell is a Palaeolithic archaeologist at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Her paper “Pornography is in the eye of the beholder: Sex, sexuality and sexism in the study of Upper Paleolithic figurines” was co-authored with Melanie Chang /*]

“When we interpret Palaeolithic art more broadly, we talk about “hunting magic” or “religion” or “fertility magic.” I don’t think these interpretations have the same social ramifications as pornography. When respected journals – Nature for example – use terms such as “Prehistoric pin-up” and “35,000-year-old sex object”, and a German museum proclaims that a figurine is either an “earth mother or pin-up girl” (as if no other roles for women could have existed in prehistory), they carry weight and authority. This allows journalists and researchers, evolutionary psychologists in particular, to legitimise and naturalise contemporary western values and behaviours by tracing them back to the “mist of prehistory”.

“The French, in particular, are doing incredible work analysing paint recipes and tracing the movement of the ancient artists as they painted. We may never have the knowledge to say, “This painting of a bison meant this”, but I am confident that a detailed study of the corpus of ice age imagery, including the figurines, will give us a window on to the “lived life” in the Palaeolithic.

Lion Man

Lion Man

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “Of all the findings to emerge from this period in Germany, none is more fascinating than the Löwenmensch (Lionman) of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, a fantastical sculpture nearly 40,000 years old. The original Löwenmensch fragments—some 200 of them—were discovered in 1939, on the eve of World War II, by Robert Wetzel, a professor of anatomy at Tübingen University, and a geologist named Otto Völzing. Wetzel had hoped to work on the pieces of mammoth tusk when the war ended, but they sat untouched in a box for 30 years. Then, in 1969, archaeologist Joachim Hahn pulled them out and began to piece them together like a three-dimensional puzzle. [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015]

“As he did, an extraordinary work of art emerged. At nearly a foot high, the Löwenmensch dwarfs all other carvings so far discovered in the German valleys. But what makes it particularly interesting, says Claus-Joachim Kind, an archaeologist at the State Office for Cultural Heritage in Baden-Württemberg, is that it depicts for the first time a creature that was completely imaginary, part man and part lion. Its creation required not only an unusually inventive mind, but also impressive technical skills and an enormous amount of time—an estimated 400 hours. “This is not something you do in the evening after work,” says Kind.

“You can feel the power of the figure when you look at it, the seamless melding of a stately human and a ferocious animal. Does the sculpture reflect a wish to bestow a lion’s power on a human? Or could it represent a shaman’s special ability to straddle the spiritual worlds of human and animal? Hohlenstein-Stadel is the only cave in the region where archaeologists have found no everyday tools, bones, or rubbish. It is deeper than the other caves too. It’s not difficult to imagine that within its chambers early hunters venerated the Lionman and that Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave was an early locus of prehistoric religion. This was “a holy place,” says Kind.

“Conard thinks these people possessed minds as fully modern as ours and, like us, sought in ritual and myth answers to life’s mysteries, especially in the face of an uncertain world. Who governs the migration of the herds, grows the trees, shapes the moon, turns on the stars? Why must we die, and where do we go afterward? “They wanted answers,” he says, “but they didn’t have any science-based explanations for the world around them.”

Piecing Together the Lion Man

Lion Man

For more than 70 years, archaeologists have been piecing together the “lion man” out of mammoth ivory fragments unearthed in a southern German cave. Using recently uncovered fragments, archaeologists may be able to finally be able to complete the job. [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell, Archaeology, Volume 65 Number 2, March/April 2012 ==]

Jarrett A. Lobell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “On August 25, 1939, archaeologists working at a Paleolithic site called Stadelhole (“stable cave”) at Hohlenstein (“hollow rock”) in southern Germany, uncovered hundreds of mammoth ivory fragments. Just one week later, before they could complete their fieldwork and analyze the finds, World War II began. The team was forced to quickly fill the excavation trenches using the same soil in which they found the ivory pieces. For the next three decades, the fragments sat in storage at the nearby City Museum of Ulm, until archaeologist Joachim Hahn began an inventory. As Hahn pieced together more than 200 fragments, an extraordinary artifact dating to the Aurignacian period (more than 30,000 years ago) began to emerge. It was clearly a figure with both human and animal characteristics. However, only a small part of the head and the left ear had been found, so the type of creature it represented remained a mystery. ==

“Between 1972 and 1975, additional fragments from excavation seasons in the 1960s, which had been stored elsewhere, and still others picked up from the cave’s floor, were taken to the museum. Yet it took until 1982 for paleontologist Elizabeth Schmidt to put the new pieces together with Hahn’s earlier reconstruction. Schmidt not only corrected several old errors, but also added parts of the nose and mouth that made it clear that the figurine had a cat’s head. Although the artifact is often called Lowenmensch (the “lion man”), the word mensch is not specifically male in German, and neither the gender of the animal nor of its human parts is discernible. Five years later, to conserve the figurine, the glue that held it together was dissolved. It was then carefully put back together, revealing that only about two thirds of the original had actually been recovered. ==

“This changed in 2008, when archaeologist Claus-Joachim Kind returned to the site at Hohlenstein. Kind removed the old backfill from the hastily concluded excavation of 1939. Over the next three years, Kind’s team found several hundred more small mammoth ivory fragments. “In 2009, when we found the first ones, it was a huge surprise,” says Kind. “But this is exactly the spot where the fragments of the figurine were originally found, so I knew right away that some belonged to the lion man. It had clearly been damaged during the earlier excavations. Only the larger pieces were collected and the smaller ones left behind,” he adds. Kind was able to fit several of the new pieces to form part of the back and neck, and a computer simulation of the lion man was created, showing the placement of several more previously unattached fragments. “At the end of the 2011 season, all the backfill will have been removed. There will be no more pieces left,” says Kind. “We hope that the lion man will finally be complete.” ==

Jomon Pottery from Japan

Jomon ceramic conch shell

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of Jomon pottery have been found at archaeological excavation and building construction sites. Such massive amounts of pottery implies that the Jomon people engaged in the craft on an almost industrial scale and were more than simple hunters and gatherers.

Charles T. Keally wrote: “It is commonly thought that the oldest pottery in Japan is the linear-relief potsherds from the Fukui Cave site in northwestern Kyushu, dated about 10,000-10,500 B.C. In fact there are several sites, scattered all over the country except in Okinawa in the far south, that have yielded potsherds from strata dated around 11,000 B.C. -- in Hokkaido in the far north (Higashi Rokugo 2); in Aomori at the northern end of the main island of Honshu (Odai Yamamoto I); in Ibaragi (Ushirono), Tokyo (Maeda Kochi) and Kanagawa (Kamino) in east-central Honshu; and in Nagasaki (Sempukuji) in northwestern Kyushu in western Japan. The ages of these sites rival anything on the continent. But more significant is the fact that pottery becomes common in Japanese sites from around 7500-8000 B.C., except in Hokkaido and Okinawa, and that is not true of continental sites. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

The manufacture of pottery typically implies some form of sedentary life because pottery is heavy, bulky, and fragile and thus generally unusable for hunter-gatherers. However, this does not seem to have been the case with the first Jomon people, who perhaps numbered 20,000 over the whole archipelago. It seems that food sources were so abundant in the natural environment of the Japanese islands that it could support fairly large, semi-sedentary populations. The Jomon people used chipped stone tools, ground stone tools, traps, and bows, and were evidently skillful coastal and deep-water fishermen. [Source: Wikipedia]

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “Pottery was one of the most useful crafts for the Jomon, and this can be seen from the large numbers of pots and other clay vessels that they produced. Jomon women are thought to have produced pottery for household daily uses such as cooking and storage, but also for decoration and for special ceremonies. If you've ever tried to move a heavy terracotta flowerpot, you'll know that it's no fun lugging one of these around…especially on foot. The fact that the Jomon people made so many pots tells us one important thing, these hunter-gathering people couldn't have been wandering around all the time (i.e., they couldn't have been nomadic) and must have settled down somewhere at least for part of the year (they were sedentary or semi-sedentary)...From excavated finds, scholars believe that the earliest pottery in Japan was produced by riverside hunter fishers who had microlithic blade technology.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

World's First Pottery from Japan?

Jomon facial pottery

Jomon pottery Jomon pottery from Japan has been dated to around 16,000 years ago (14,000 B.C.) and is regarded as the oldest in the world although of similar ages have been found in southern China, the Russian Far East, and Korea. Pottery is made by cooking soft clay at high temperatures until it hardens into an entirely new substance — ceramics. Some Jomon pottery was decorated with markings made by pressing various items including lengths of cord into the wet clay before firing. Pottery from Japan preceded ceramics from Mesopotamia by over two thousand years. Ancient pottery with similar styling and dates have been found in China and the Russian Far East. China now claims it is the home of the world's oldest pottery (See Below).

The earliest pieces of Jomon pottery were small rounded pots were plain or had bean, linear or fingernail applique decorations. Later cord-marked decorations appeared, from which the name “Jomon” (meaning “chord-marked”) is derived. Excavations have revealed pottery fragments from very small, rounded pots made by a hunter-gathering people living in the Kanto plain, where Tokyo is now located, that may be 16,000 years old. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

In 1998 small fragments were found at the Odai Yamamoto I site, which have been dated to the 14th millennium BC; subsequently, pottery of the same age was found at other sites such as Kamikuroiwa in Shikoku and Fukui Cave in northwestern Kyushu. Archaeologist Junko Habu claims that "The majority of Japanese scholars believed, and still believe, that pottery production was first invented in mainland Asia and subsequently introduced into the Japanese archipelago." However, at present it appears that pottery emerged at roughly the same time in Japan, the Amur River basin of far eastern Russia, and China. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Some early Jomon pottery is characterized by the cord-marking that gives the period its name and has now been found in large numbers of sites. The pottery of the period has been classified by archaeologists into some 70 styles, with many more local varieties of the styles. The antiquity of Jomon pottery was first identified after World War II, through radiocarbon dating methods. The earliest vessels were mostly smallish round-bottomed bowls 10–50 cm high that are assumed to have been used for boiling food and, perhaps, storing it beforehand. They belonged to hunter-gatherers and the size of the vessels may have been limited by a need for portability. As later bowls increase in size, this is taken to be a sign of an increasingly settled pattern of living. These types continued to develop, with increasingly elaborate patterns of decoration, undulating rims, and flat bottoms so that they could stand on a surface. +

20,000-Years-Old Pottery Found in a Chinese Cave

Early Jomon pottery

In June 2012, AP reported: “Pottery fragments found in a south China cave have been confirmed to be 20,000 years old, making them the oldest known pottery in the world, archaeologists say. The findings, which will appear in the journal Science, add to recent efforts that have dated pottery piles in east Asia to more than 15,000 years ago, refuting conventional theories that the invention of pottery correlates to the period about 10,000 years ago when humans moved from being hunter-gathers to farmers. [Source: Didi Tang, Associated Press, June 28, 2012]

“The research by a team of Chinese and American scientists also pushes the emergence of pottery back to the last ice age, which might provide new explanations for the creation of pottery, said Gideon Shelach, chair of the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies at The Hebrew University in Israel. "The focus of research has to change," Shelach, who is not involved in the research project in China, said by telephone. In an accompanying Science article, Shelach wrote that such research efforts "are fundamental for a better understanding of socio-economic change (25,000 to 19,000 years ago) and the development that led to the emergency of sedentary agricultural societies." He said the disconnection between pottery and agriculture as shown in east Asia might shed light on specifics of human development in the region.

“Wu Xiaohong, professor of archaeology and museology at Peking University and the lead author of the Science article that details the radiocarbon dating efforts, told The Associated Press that her team was eager to build on the research. "We are very excited about the findings. The paper is the result of efforts done by generations of scholars," Wu said. "Now we can explore why there was pottery in that particular time, what were the uses of the vessels, and what role they played in the survival of human beings."

“The ancient fragments were discovered in the Xianrendong cave in south China's Jiangxi province, which was excavated in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, according to the journal article. Wu, a chemist by training, said some researchers had estimated that the pieces could be 20,000 years old, but that there were doubts. "We thought it would be impossible because the conventional theory was that pottery was invented after the transition to agriculture that allowed for human settlement." But by 2009, the team — which includes experts from Harvard and Boston universities — was able to calculate the age of the pottery fragments with such precision that the scientists were comfortable with their findings, Wu said. "The key was to ensure the samples we used to date were indeed from the same period of the pottery fragments," she said. That became possible when the team was able to determine the sediments in the cave were accumulated gradually without disruption that might have altered the time sequence, she said.

“Scientists took samples, such as bones and charcoal, from above and below the ancient fragments in the dating process, Wu said. "This way, we can determine with precision the age of the fragments, and our results can be recognized by peers," Wu said. Shelach said he found the process done by Wu's team to be meticulous and that the cave had been well protected throughout the research.

The same team in 2009 published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which they determined the pottery fragments found in south China's Hunan province to be 18,000 years old, Wu said. "The difference of 2,000 years might not be significant in itself, but we always like to trace everything to its earliest possible time," Wu said. "The age and location of pottery fragments help us set up a framework to understand the dissemination of the artifacts and the development of human civilization."

Very Old Pottery from the Russian Far East

Very old pottery has been found in Amur River basin of the Russian Far East that appears to be as old as that found in Japan. The oldest Russian Far East ceramics are accompanied by stone artifacts made in the blade technique characteristic of the late Paleolith era or Neolithic era. In an article entitled “On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East," Irina Zhushchikhovskaya wrote: “Sites containing simple ceramics were discovered in the Amur River basin, the Primorie (Maritime) region, and on Sakhalin Island. These sites are widely dated from between 13,000 to 6000” before present (B.P.) “In the Russian Far East, the problem of pottery-making origins has been explored only recently."Source:“On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East” by Irina Zhushchikhovskaya, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Fall 1997), pp. 159-174, University of Hawai'i Press ==]

“Early ceramics assemblages from various regions in the northern part of the Sea of Japan basin and the Russian Far East are characterized by certain technological and morphological features. Two types of ceramic pastes can be distinguished, the first employing natural clay without artificial temper (Ustinovka-3, Almazinka) and the second using clay with plant fiber artificial temper (Gasya, Khummy, Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya culture, Chernigovka-1). Not all of the pottery assemblages provide evidence of forming techniques.At least three can be identified: a moulding technique, perhaps in conjunction with the use of a paddle and anvil, slab construction and coiling. These features are similar to those described for early ceramics from otherregions of eastern Asia and elsewhere in the world. For example, a ceramic paste of untempered natural clay is typical for the earliest pottery of Japan (Vandiver 1991). ==

“The early ceramic assemblages of the Russian Far East share many technological and morphological properties with early ceramics discovered in other regions of the world. This resemblance may be explained, in part, by the comparable level of pottery-making development that restricted the technological and morphological choice. Variability within these early ceramic traditions developed gradually, as skills and expertise improved. At the same time, it may be noted that regional differences appeared in the very earliest stages of pottery-making. Ceramic assemblages from the Russian Far East show evidence of partial moulds and possibly paddle and anvil techniques. In early Jomon assemblages, slab construction was employed, followed by coiling in later assemblages. ==

“The Russian Far Eastern early ceramic assemblages that represent a common pottery-making level are placed into a fairly wide temporal interval between 13,000 and 6000 B.P. This large interval may reflect the few radiocarbon dates yet available for these assemblages and the lack of other absolute dating methods. This article has shown that sites associated with early ceramics within each of the regions included here are consistently dated to a somewhat narrower interval of time. The lower Amur River basin is characterized by the oldest dates of the sites, ranging from 13,000 to 10,000 B.P. The sites from Primorie region occupy an intermediate position, between 8500 and 7500 B.P., and Sakhalin Island is characterized by the most recent sites, dated to 6500-6000 B.P. This chronological sequence possibly reflects the geographically uneven dynamics for the introduction of pottery-making in the territories of the Russian Far East. ==

“The lower Amur River basin may be interpreted as a region of the earliest ceramics. Radiocarbon dates for the lowest components of the Gasya and Khummy sites are close to the dates of the Jomon sites in Japan containing the most unadvanced pottery. The ages of the sites in the Primorie region associated with early ceramics tend to match dates for sites associated with early pottery from areas to the south and southeast in China (Jiao 1995; Wang Xiao Qing, 1995). ==

Comparing Very Old Pottery from the Russian Far East with Jomon Pottery

In “On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East," Irina Zhushchikhovskaya wrote: My inspection of Incipient Jomon ceramics from Kiriyama-Wada and Jin located in Honsu and dated to approximately 12,000-10,000 B.P. suggests some trends involving the technology of paste among these early ceramics. The ceramics from the earliest sites (or components of sites) have a paste prepared of rough, unworked natural clay. The ceramics from later components is characterized by clay in which more of the large particles have been removed, producing a more plastic clay paste that is still untempered. [Source:“On Early Pottery-Making in the Russian Far East” by Irina Zhushchikhovskaya, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Fall 1997), pp. 159-174, University of Hawai'i Press ==]

“Plant fiber-tempering technologyoccurred in the pottery of the Initial and Earliest Jomon periods (Nishida 1987). This technology appeared in the early ceramics of North and Central America (Griffin 1965; Hoopes 1994; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971; Reid 1984), Near East and Central Asia (Amiran 1965; Saiko 1982), and now for the materials from the Russian Far East. There is some evidence for the use of mould forming methods in ceramic assemblages from south and southeast China dated to 10,000-9000 B.P. (Wang Xiao Qing 1995). The use of moulds in the forming process was popular in several areas of Eurasia (Bobrinsky 1978). ==

“According to P. B. Vandiver, the earliest Japanese pottery was formed by a method similar to slab construction. Coiling was not employed in the initial stage of pottery production (Vandiver 1991). The combination of partial moulding and slab construction took place in some cases (Vandiver 1987). Similar examples of this technique were discovered in sites from south China dated between 9000 and 8000 B.P. A roundish stone or a basket may have been used as a mould to which pieces of clay were then applied (Wang Xiao Qing 1995). The coiling method for making pottery is widely represented amongarchaeological assemblages throughout the world. Obvious evidence for this method can be identified among later ceramics from Jomon sites in Japan. ==

“A relatively simple morphological pattern was a common characteristic of early ceramics. Nonetheless, vessels with a rectangular shape also occurred in early pottery-making. The box-shaped vessels associated with Sakhalin Island's Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya culture are similar to those from sites in northern Japan dated to 13,000-10,000 B.P. (Suda 1995). ==

“A common trait of both the Russian Far Eastern and Japanese sites is the occurrence of early ceramics together with a lithic industry combining elements from the Late Paleolithic and Neolithic. This may reflect certain technical and social contexts linked to the first appearance of pottery in this part of the world. Because the first discoveries of early ceramics in East Asia occurred in theJapanese archipelago, initial conceptions about the origins of pottery-making emphasized this territory (Ikawa-Smith 1976; Serizawa 1976). The discovery of the new sites containing early ceramics in the Russian Far East indicates that the area of ceramic origins needs to be broadened to include the Sea of Japan basin as a whole (Zhushchikhovskaya 1995b). Clearly, this perspective will lead to more comparative and new field research on the origins of pottery-making." On Sakhalin Island however, the dates are more recent: “The most archaic pottery-making tradition in this region is connected with the sites of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinskaya archaeological culture (Golubev and Zhushchikhovskaya 1987). It is radiocarbon dated to approximately 6500-6000 B.P. The location of this archaeological culture is the southern portion of Sakhalin Island (Shubin et al. 1984)." ==

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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