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.”

“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.