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Researchers Find Earliest Known Pottery In Chinese Cave

June 2, 2009

Researchers believe they may have found the earliest development of ceramics by ancient people, as bits of pottery determined to be some 18,000 years old were discovered in a cave in southern China, The Associated Press reported.

Elisabetta Boaretto of Bar Ilan University in Israel said the find in the Yuchanyan Cave supports the proposal made in the past that pottery making by foragers began in south China.

Boaretto said the pottery found at Yuchanyan “is the earliest so far”.

Tracey Lu, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who was not involved with Boaretto’s team, said pottery was one of the first human-made materials and tracing its origins and development opens a window on the development of culture.

Lu said that while pottery initially serves as a cooking and storage facility, some pottery vessels later on become symbols of power and social status, as well as examples of art.

“Pottery is still an important part of human culture today.”

She said the dates reported in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences are slightly older than the dates of pottery found in Japan. And she noted the accuracy of radiocarbon dates in the limestone area has been under debate for many years.

“I agree that pottery was made by foragers in South China, but I also think pottery was produced more or less contemporaneously in several places in East Asia … from Russia, Japan to North and South China by foragers living in different environments,” she added.

But Boaretto contends that the importance of the study is the high precision dating.

“The systematic dating of the whole cave, to exclude mixing or intrusion of materials from above layers and the very detailed dating of the strata around the new pottery.”

She said the carbon dating sets Yuchanyan as the earliest site where pottery has been made.

“We do not know if the technology moved from China to the other sites, but this hypothesis is stronger now than before,” Boaretto said.

Figurines have been found in what is now the Czech Republic that go back as far as 35,000 years, according to Patrick E. McGovern, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

But he said those were not actual pottery vessels.

He believes the report provides firm evidence that China was the home of the earliest pottery yet found, though there does seem to be a long gap between the Czech figurines and the Chinese pottery.

“It makes you wonder what was going on,” McGovern said.

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