Among the Earliest in World: Pottery by Hunter-gatherers in Japan

Around 14,000 years ago, the hunter-gatherers of Tanegashima made clay bowls and plates, well before farming began. Fumie Iizuka: ‘The Neolithic needs redefining’

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Ceramic sherds excavated from Sankakuyama I, Tanegashima Island.
Ceramic sherds excavated from Sankakuyama I, Tanegashima Island. Credit: Fumie Iizuka
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

About 14,000 years ago, prehistoric hunter-gatherers in southern Japan were making pottery. There are no signs whatsoever that the late Pleistocene inhabitants of Tanegashima Island had begun to settle down and grow food. They were foragers, hunter-gatherers and fishers, not farmers.

Once, it had been assumed that pottery didn’t predate farming. For one thing, clay pots are fragile. For another, they’re heavy, and if one is a nomadic hunter-gatherer, one doesn’t want to lug about heavy loads of delicate items. (Beasts of burden wouldn’t be domesticated for another 10,000 years.) Third, making pottery requires at least several days of staying put. You knead the raw clay, ridding it of air bubbles that would cause the pot to explode during firing; you shape it into the desired form; then you let it dry – at least for days, often more – before firing it. If you fire it wet, it will crack. So hunter-gatherers on the move were not thought to have developed pottery.

Except they did. It has now been amply shown that pottery preceded farming in eastern Asia, and now a geochemical analysis published in March in PLOS One again puts the lie to the potting-farmer with unusually confident dating of clay bowls and plates on Tanegashima Island to around 14,000 years ago – long preceding the end of the Ice Age or advent of agriculture or animal husbandry.

The vessels, discovered and excavated by the Kagoshima Prefectural Archaeology Center and now analyzed by lead author Fumie Iizuka of the University of California with Jeffrey Ferguson of the University of Missouri and Masami Izuho of of Tokyo Metropolitan University, are apparently among the earliest pottery in the world.

They are associated with the Incipient Jomon culture, which spanned from 14,000 to 13,500 years to 12,800 years ago. (The final phase of the Jomon culture was 300 B.C.E.)

Incipient Jomon bowls.Credit: Ismoon
Reconstructed Incipient Jomon vessel (about 14,000/13,500-12,800 years ago)Credit: Fumie Iizuka

Pottery confidently assigned to the terminal Pleistocene are found only in the Amur River basin in northeast Asia, the Russian Far East and the Japanese archipelago.

“Those vessels are all hunter-gatherer vessels,” Iizuka spells out. They were not made by early farmers. There is no evidence whatsoever of domestic plants or animals on Tanegashima, or in the southern Kyushu region as a whole, she says.

Even considering that the advent of agriculture was a protracted process, the team suggests that the Incipient Jomon of southern Kyushu was pre-agricultural. “Therefore, pottery was made before farming,” she says.

In her opinion, the dating of pottery found in southern China to 20,000 or 18,000 years ago, or items in the Transbaikal region of Siberia seemingly from 16,700 years ago, remains unproven, Iizuka explains. (Some suspect the ages of the Chinese and Siberian early pottery are as “young” as half their reported potential age – which would still place some in the pre-Neolithic, mind you.)

Unsurprisingly, most of the early pottery found on Tanegashima was made locally. But 10 to 14 percent of it originated on other islands, which may attest to prehistoric cultural and trading relations, explains the team. Pottery itself was exchanged, or locally available goods may have been contained in pottery and were exchanged, Iizuka qualifies, adding: the decorative styles of the pottery are like that on southern Kyushu.

Ceramic sherd excavated from Sankakuyama I, Tanegashima IslandCredit: Fumie Iizuka
Sakurajima, a very frisky volcanoCredit: Fumie Iizuka

Timing by volcano

For the exceptionally confident geochronology associated with the Tanegashima pottery, the team can thank Sakurajima – a highly active volcano in southern Kyushu. It erupts a lot and separate work has dated its emissions.

So, based on volcanic gunk securely dated to 12,800 years ago that lies above the pottery, the team concludes that the pottery at the open-air site of Sankakuyama I on Tanegashima is between 14,000 to 13,000 years old.

Eleven Incipient Jomon sites have been identified on that island. One is Sankakuyama, which had been occupied from the Incipient Jomon until about 1,700 years ago. (Tanegashima in general has been occupied for about 35,000 years, Iizuka says.)

Despite being pre-agricultural, the Incipient Jomon was marked by population increase, especially in Tanegashima. It was a time of global climate change and gradually rising sea levels as the Ice Age wound down. As the waters rose, Tanegashima became isolated, cut off from Kyushu, about 14,300 years ago.

Fumie Iizuka collecting raw materials on TanegashimaCredit: Izuho
China dating 20,000 to 10,000 years ago.Credit: Zhangzhugang

On the other hand, as the Ice Age waned, the living at Sankakuyama was easy, with relatively reliable balmy weather. They wouldn’t have had to trek long distances to forage, the archaeologists believe.

This would have enabled increased sedentarism, enabling pottery manufacture: no less than 4,000 pieces were found at Sankakuyama from the Incipient Jomon. The items were bowls – some shallow, some deep – and decorated mostly with appliqués bands, and some with shell or tool stamping and fingerprints. And some plates.

Further suggesting sedentarism, the people had heavy-duty grinding stones and lived in pit-houses, Iizuka says, which applies to all the Incipient Jomon sites on Tanegashima. She adds that being inland but near the sea, there would have been plenty of seafood. Sadly, because the soil is acidic, bones from their repasts have not survived the ages. However, analysis of encrustations on the pottery indicates that they ate animals, plants and seafood.

Because of the grind-stones, the many projectile points and the forested environs around the settlement, the archaeologists think the denizens probably ate a lot of nuts (which they would grind), and shot and ate a lot of animals.

So they shot the hare (probably) and ate the fish and gathered and ground nuts, but why would hunter-gatherers, even settled ones, need pottery?

Tagenashima, which is one of the Ōsumi Islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan.Credit: Bokanmania
Jomon pottery.

Anticipating thirst in America

Much later, in the American desert just 500 to 700 years ago, highly mobile and rather less mobile foragers were living in small groups. They also had pottery, which they would take to rainy areas, the team writes. In the Libyan Sahara, hunter-gatherers some 10,000 to 8,000 years ago adopted pottery during a humid period and there, too, archaeologists have detected evidence of long-distance travel with pots.

The hunter-gatherers of Sankakuyama were not likely to have used their dinnerware to transport water long distance, though the deeper bowls could have served to haul water from nearby to the settlement. Iizuka notes that some of the specimens seem to have been relatively well-fired, which would have made them less permeable. The pots could have been used to hold foods and/or water and/or to store food and/or water for hard times.

And, at least some were used for cooking. “There are some carbonized encrustations in the interior of vessels, and signature of plant and animals have been identified,” Iizuka says.

So what do we have here? Extremely early pottery, which fits into the bigger picture of pottery plausibly beginning in eastern Asia and slowly, stutteringly, spreading.

But the case is not closed. Agriculture, the Neolithic Revolution, is believed to have begun independently in multiple spots around the world as of the Holocene. There are differences of thousands of years between the start of farming in the Levant and Anatolia, parts of Asia, and the Americas et cetera.

Could this also apply to potting? Could it have developed independently in multiple places, or did it begin in Asia and diffuse? The jury is out. There is definitely early pottery in the terminal Pleistocene, in eastern and northeast Asia, but more work needs to be done, Iizuka says.

In Israel and the Levant, archaeologists speak of the PPNA and PPNB periods: pre-pottery Neolithic, when farming was emerging but there was no pottery yet. Asked if Tanegashima could be said to have a pre-Neolithic pottery period, Iizuka answers: “The concept of Neolithic needs to be reevaluated. We argue that in case of southern Kyushu, especially on the islands like Tanegashima, there are varied signatures of Neolithic existing during the Incipient Jomon: pottery, grinding stones, ground stone axes, increased sedentism” – and more.

They did not grow crops, which is a hallmark of the Neolithic Revolution. They had not domesticated the boar, the hare or any other animals. The cow only arrived during the Yayoi period about 1,900 years ago, but if it had arrived 10,000 years earlier, they would have had the plates on which to serve it.

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