Earliest Known Pottery Found In Chinese Cave
June 29, 2012

Earliest Known Pottery Found In Chinese Cave

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A team of US archaeologists confirmed Thursday that pottery unearthed in a Chinese cave during the 1960s and 1990s are among the oldest fragments of this type ever discovered, pushing back the invention of pottery some ten thousand years.

Publishing the findings in the journal Science, the archaeological team said the fragments appear to be from a large bowl found in Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi Province, and are roughly 20,000 years old.

The researchers, from Harvard University and Peking University, used carbon-dating of bones and charcoal fragments uncovered alongside the ceramics and found that these were 2,000 to 3,000 years older than other fragments found in East Asia and the surrounding region.

The finding contests conventional wisdom that the invention of pottery correlates to about 10,000 years ago, when humans moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. Part of that reasoning comes from the fact that pottery is large and breakable, and not a useful technology for hunter-gatherer societies that moved around a lot in search of food.

The research team 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 was not part of the latest research, said in an accompanying Science article. 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.”

It is possible that the disconnection between pottery and agriculture in east Asia could shed light on specifics of human development in that region, he added.

Wu Xiaohong, professor of archaeology and museology at Peking University and the lead author of the paper, said 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 told The Associated Press. “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.”

While some of the researchers initially estimated that the pottery fragments could be 20,000 years old, there were some doubts, according to Wu. “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,” she noted.

But through extensive carbon-dating, Wu said the team was able to calculate the age of the pieces with such precision that the scientists were comfortable with the results.  “The key was to ensure the samples we used to date were indeed from the same period of the pottery fragments,” she told AP.

Shelach said the team´s process seemed to be quite meticulous and that the cave had been well protected throughout the research.

One of the lead researchers on the study, Professor Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, said that one possibility for the invention of pottery 20,000 years ago is the fact that the climate was much colder than at any time in the previous million years.

He said pottery cauldrons would have enabled people to extract more nutrition from the food by cooking it. “Hunter-gatherers were under pressure to get enough food.”

“If the invention is a good one, it spreads pretty fast. And it seems that in that part of southern China, pottery spread among hunter-gatherers in a large area,” Bar-Yosef told Pallab Ghosh at BBC News.

Wu agreed, adding her team is now seeking further evidence to back up that theory.

She said there are other theories out there as well. One is that humans wanted to eat mollusks, and “cooking them in ceramic containers was the only way to kill the bacteria and make it safe to eat.” She noted that mollusks shells had been uncovered around other excavation sites, giving the theory some credibility.

Shelach believes the earliest pottery may have played more of a social role in humans, rather than as an economic technology.

“People were gathering together in larger groups and you needed social activities to mitigate against increased tensions,” he told BBC News, adding that those potteries may have likely been “used to brew alcohol” as well.

Bar-Yosef is eager to discover what in fact these ancient people were cooking 20,000 years ago. He believes that whatever it was it was either steamed or boiled, since cooking with oil hadn´t appeared until much later. “We think it was used for cooking with water, so it is more like a cauldron,” he added.

The same team published an article in 2009 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“¦ 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,” Wu concluded.