Oldest pottery comes from Chinese cave

Ice age foragers cooked with ceramic pots long before farmers did

Pottery making got off to an ancient, icy start in East Asia. Pieces of ceramic containers found in a Chinese cave date to between 19,000 and 20,000 years ago, making these finds from the peak of the last ice age the oldest known examples of pottery.

OLDEST POT This pottery fragment and others found near it in a Chinese cave date to 20,000 years ago, making them the oldest known examples of pottery making. Science/AAAS

This new discovery suggests that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for cooking at least 10,000 years before farming appeared in that part of the world, say archaeologist Xiaohong Wu of Peking University in Beijing, China, and her colleagues. Cooking would have increased energy obtained from starchy foods and meat, a big plus in frigid areas with limited food opportunities, the researchers report in the June 29 Science.

“The early onset of pottery making meant that food preparation intensified during the last glacial maximum,” says Harvard University archaeologist and study coauthor Ofer Bar-Yosef.

Wu, Bar-Yosef and colleagues gathered 45 samples of bone and charcoal from previously excavated soil layers at Xianrendong Cave. Radiocarbon measurements of bone and charcoal generated by three labs — one in China and two in the United States — point to initial human use of the cave from about 29,000 to 17,500 years ago. Xianrendong Cave pottery contains burn marks from being placed over fires and is 2,000 to 3,000 years older than pottery from another Chinese cave, which had previously held the age record.

Until about a decade ago, scientists assumed that heating clay to make ceramic containers began about 10,000 years ago with the rise of farming (SN: 2/5/05, p. 88).

“Chinese pottery appeared long before animal domestication and has no obvious connection to the origins of agriculture or sedentary living,” remarks archaeologist T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

East Asian hunter-gatherers may have set up seasonal camps 20,000 years ago, where they made pottery, proposes archaeologist Zhijun Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “Xianrendong pottery probably had many purposes, including boiling clams and snails,” says Zhao, who participated in a 1993 excavation of the cave.

Numerous clam and snail shells were unearthed in pottery-bearing soil at Xianrendong Cave and at other ancient Chinese sites, Zhao says.

Ice age people could also have used pottery to boil bones for grease and marrow and to brew alcoholic drinks, the Chinese researcher suggests.

Discovering 20,000-year-old pottery in China doesn’t mean that people outside East Asia at that time didn’t know about ceramic techniques, comments archaeologist Anna Belfer-Cohen of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. East Europeans baked clay figurines 23,000 years ago, and Middle Easterners made simple pottery between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago, Belfer-Cohen points out.

“The concept of pottery making was introduced in different parts of the world at different times,” she says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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