Monthly Archives: January 2020

Paleolithic and Jomon Obsidian Production

Obsidian exhibit at Togariishi Museum of Jomon Archaeology.

Upper Paleolithic Blade Technology

This is a continuation of our previous post on Jomon obsidian. The first blade technology emerged in the Upper Paleolithic, around 36,000 years ago. The Upper Paleolithic was from around 38,000 to 16,000 years ago; the Jomon period was from around 16,000 to 2,800 years ago.

“The Japanese Paleolithic is unique in that it incorporates one of the earliest known sets of ground stone and polished stone tools in the world, although older ground stone tools have been discovered in Australia. The tools, which have been dated to around 30,000 BC, are a technology associated in the rest of the world with the beginning of the Neolithic around 10,000 BC. It is not known why such tools were created so early in Japan.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Paleolithic

“Prehistoric Human Activities Around Obsidian Sources in Central Japan”

This journal publication by Kazutaka Shimada contains a great deal of information about prehistoric obsidian sources in Central Japan. His Figure 2 is a detailed map of obsidian mining sites in the Central Highlands. Many Jomon sites have been found near obsidian mines in the mountains of the Central Highlands at altitudes between 1,200 to 2,000 m. We may think that the Jomon were hunter-gatherers, but they lived a semi-sedentary existence with lithic technology higher than we may have imagined.

Obsidian is distributed along volcanic zones, and sources of obsidian in the Japanese archipelago are therefore limited. Around 200 obsidian sources have been identified in Japan, the three main regions being northeastern Hokkaido island, central Japan of Honshu island, and northern Kyushu island.

During the Upper Paleolithic, the technique for the production of obsidian blades were done in lithic workshops. Early on, obsidian was gathered from the surface, and by the Jomon period, the people mined underground deposits by digging pits. The Central Highlands served as a “hub” of the Jomon residential areas, and its obsidian was widely distributed.

“The Jomon exchange networks reflect both the establishment of the local group(s) who exclusively managed the source areas and controlled obsidian circulation, and the emergence of highly sophisticated social relations among the regional Jomon societies of central Japan.”

This thoroughly documented paper offers a window into the lifestyle of the Jomon. We recommend you study it if you have any interest in the obsidian industry of Jomon Japan.

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Happy New Year!

Winter solstice sunrise at the Higashinoyama Megaliths in Central Japan, December 2019. Photo by Chika.

Winter Solstice at the Kanayama Megaliths

The Kanayama Megaliths from the Jomon period have been following the path of the sun in the sky for thousands of years. Thirty observations are made per year to determine the super-accurate solar calendar, an astronomical calendar. One of the most important observations is shown above. The photo was taken by Chika-san at Higashinoyama on December 22, 2019 when the sun rose above the neighboring mountains, and appeared directly ahead of the 9-meter long megalith.

Civil and Astronomical New Years

In many countries, the new year begins on the first day of January. Why? It is a civil calendar created for Western society beginning with the Roman calendar for the running of society. Astronomical calendars are based on major astronomical events such as solstices and equinoxes or risings of important stars and asterisms.

Astronomical New Year

In ancient societies in Europe and in Asia, indigenous people eagerly awaited the the return of the sun to their hemisphere after winter. They used an astronomical calendar. They carefully determined winter solstice day, the shortest day of the year and the day when the sun is lowest in the sky. They celebrated, for the sun is returning!

There are revival ceremonies in Japan to welcome back the sun. One of them is the Asadori Winter Solstice ritual that has continued for thousands of years in Central Japan.

Bonfire before and after being lit on winter solstice morning at Asadori shrine. Photo by Chika.

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Obsidian in the Central Highlands

Obsidian pendant from Togariishi Museum in Nagano.

Jomon Obsidian

When we were in Nagano last year, we visited the Togariishi Jomon Archaeological Museum in the city of Chino. There I bought a black obsidian pendant. Ever since then, I have been curious to learn more about obsidian. Why was the museum selling obsidian pendants? What has obsidian to do with the Jomon of prehistoric Japan? We answer these questions in a two-part post.

What is Obsidian?

Obsidian is a volcanic glass, predominantly glossy black, that forms as igneous rock through the rapid cooling of magma. It has been used for cutting tools with sharp edges such as arrowheads and knives, and also as jewelry. Because it is shiny, it is like a mirror and is thought to expose hidden truths. Allowing negativities to be cleansed, obsidian is known for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.

Obsidian in Japan

Obsidian has a long history in Japan and is found in many places throughout the archipelago. It is called kokuyo-seki (黒曜石; koku is black and seki is stone). Obsidian has been mined from many sites in the Central Highlands since Jomon times. What are the Central Highlands? They cover the prefectures of Nagano, Yamanashi, and Gifu.

“It is believed that there are more than 100 obsidian mining sites in the Japanese islands, extending from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. Among these, much of the obsidian from sites in Nagano Prefecture is of high quality, features sharp fracture intersections, and is easy to work and shape. For this reason, Nagano obsidian was the preferred material for making arrowheads, knives, and other stone tools and was widely used by the people of that period….Over a period of several tens of thousands of years from the Paleolithic to the Yayoi period, Nagano obsidian—obsidian only produced in Nagano Prefecture—was distributed in large quantities across a wide area.” https://jomon.co/en/story/

“30,000 years ago, obsidian was transported as raw stone, but 20,000 years ago, stone tools were made at the place of origin and transported to various places. In archeological sites such as Takayama and Mangakukura in Nagawa-cho, Nagano Prefecture, materials and fragments that are traces of stoneware processing have been found. ” https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASL9H46V9L9HUOOB003.html

Obsidian in Shinshu

Shinano Province or Shinshū (信州) is the traditional name for Nagano Prefecture. Located in central Honshu—the primary island of Japan—Shinshu flourished in ancient times as a cultural crossroads between Eastern and Western Japan. With the easy access from Tokyo and the fame the 1998 Winter Olympics brought to Nagano, Shinshu is today a popular tourist draw for people from both within and outside Japan. Bordered on the west by the Japanese Alps, a range of 3,000-meter class mountains, Shinshu provides excellent opportunities for such activities as skiing at Hakuba and hiking in Kamikochi (the Upper Highlands) as well as beautiful mountain views and other natural scenery.  https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/shinshu/

“A historic ruins from the mid-Jomon period, located on the plateau on the west foot of Mt. Yatsugatake at an elevation of 1,070 meters. An archeological survey was carried out in 1930 by a local researcher, Fusakazu Miyasaka, which resulted in the excavation of numerous pit dwellings and hearth remnants, along with earthenware and stoneware revealing mid-Jomon culture and settlements that flourished in the Chubu Highlands. It was designated as a National Historic Site in 1942, and as the first Special Historic Site from the Jomon period in 1952. Moreover, north of the Togariishi Ruins and across a shallow valley with flowing natural spring water, the Yosukeone Historic Ruins were also added to the designation in 1993.” https://www.city.chino.lg.jp/site/togariishi/

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