The earliest surviving forms of art in Palaeolithic Japan were, not surprisingly, expressed in stone.
The oldest form of art reported in Japan was from the 24,000 year old Mimitori site in Kagoshima prefecture. It is a round shale pebble 5 centimeters long, 3 centimeters wide and 3 centimeters tall, that has been carved into the form of a woman. On the underside of the pebble, is a groove and 17 carved thin lines.
The next oldest form of Palaeolithic art was an engraved pebble of a female form with breasts from the cave of Kamikuroiwa site in Ehime prefecture dated at 12,165 years old were found.
Stone figurine with engraved hair, breasts and straw skirt from the Kamikuroiwa site (Hideji Harunari : Japanese Archaeology, Research Department)
The pebble stone engraving is actually one of 13 stone figurines that have been excavated from the Kamikuroiwa site. These stone figurines are small, natural cylindrical stones that have been shaped to portray the human form. Hair, breasts and a straw skirt are engraved on the front, while an anus is engraved on the back. Breasts are seen on some of these, two of which are clearly female, but we don’t know about those without breasts engraved in the stone. There are stone figurines without breasts that have a large upper body and others with a slender upper body, and the gender of these figurines is undetermined.
Who did the figurines represent? Some female goddess deity or a good luck fertility charm for conception or reproduction? We can only guess.
These pebbles are known as Venus pebbles because the engraved images appear to be of female parts (breasts and vulva) and of straw skirts. The term Venus figurines is given to similar kind of art forms found in Europe from Western France to western Russia between 27,000-20,000 years ago. The closest examples to these figurines come from Mal’ta in Siberia.
Figurines from Mal’ta, Siberia (Hideji Harunari: Japanese Archaeology, Research Department)
Similar kinds of Venus figurine art of the Paleolithic people in Europe, Malta (Siberia – dated to 21,000 B.C.) and Gagarino (Ukraine – dated to 22,000 B.C.) and Kostenki, (Russia 30,000 B.C.) are well known, but in Japan, very few examples of Paleolithic art have been found(although clay figurines from the Jomon period abound).
Why is this so? Were the Paleolithic people living in Japan less artistic or were they so busy they had no time for art? More likely, it is thought that they were in the habit of making paintings or drawings on animal skins or other materials that have deteriorated over time and that have left no lasting traces.
Ancient Human Migrations: Pre-Aurignacian Levels Discovered at Kostenki By K. Kris Hirst, About.com Guide
Mimitori site, Kagoshima 耳取遺跡 (鹿児島末吉町旧石器時代館児島末吉町旧石器時代館HP) (see also tool artefacts of Mimitori)
Relic believed to represent female form (Japan Times Apr 26, 2000) or
In the news: Oldest artifact (24,000-year-old) with human image made out of shale unearthed in Kagoshima (Heritage of Japan)
A Witness to History: photographic introduction to items from the collection / Do they portray females only? — Stone figurines from Kamikuroiwa, National Museum of Japanese History website
The Korstenski-Borshevo region on the Don River page (from Don’s Maps) has a detailed series of photos of the Korstenski group of Venus figurines as well as much information on the archaeology of the site.
Mal’ta Essay by Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click on the image of Mal’ta figurine art
A history of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia by David Christian
Stone Age site reveals ‘extraordinary’ artworks (CNN.com/Technology December 3, 2008)