Pottery cooked from the start

Ancient Japanese hunter-gatherers made ceramic fish cookers before rise of farming

Ancient leftovers indicate that the earliest pottery was used by hunter-gatherers for cooking, thousands of years before farming communities began heating their food in vessels.

FISHY FINDS Ancient Japanese pottery, represented by this vessel from around 15,000 years ago, has yielded chemical evidence that hunter-gatherers once used such containers to cook fish. Tokamachi City Museum

Chemical analyses of charred food clinging to pottery fragments from sites across Japan indicate that hunter-gatherers who lived there between 15,300 and 11,200 years ago cooked freshwater or marine animals in ceramic vessels, say bioarchaeologist Oliver Craig of the University of York in England and his colleagues.

Concentrations of a certain form of nitrogen in crusty morsels attached to ceramic vessels from Japan’s ancient Jōmon culture indicate that these people used the pots for cooking, Craig’s team reports April 11 in Nature. Fatty acids extracted from food remnants on pottery from two Jōmon sites confirmed that fish or other aquatic creatures had been cooked.

Fatty acids don’t tend to survive well in burned food crusts, but the scientists worked with what they could find on the Japanese containers. “We weren’t expecting to get such conclusive results from charred deposits of this age,” Craig says.

Previous chemical analyses of pottery stains, which unlike burned deposits often preserve fatty acids, have dated the origins of cheese making to 7,400 years ago in Eastern Europe (SN: 1/26/13, p. 16) and of cattle milking to 9,000 years ago in what’s now Turkey.

Until the 1990s, researchers traced the origins of pottery in Japan to rice farmers living no more than 2,300 years ago. An excavation in the early 1990s of a large Jōmon settlement containing buildings, graves and numerous pottery fragments first challenged that view.

Further discoveries have shown that ancient hunter-gatherers across East Asia made pottery. A study published last year traced the earliest known examples to about 20,000 years ago in China. But none had directly connected the ancient pottery to cooking.

Craig’s finding raises the possibility that East Asian hunter-gatherers, rather than Middle Eastern farmers, may have introduced pottery making into Europe, suggests archaeologist Simon Kaner of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

Craig’s team assessed the carbon and nitrogen content of charred deposits on 101 Jōmon vessels from 13 sites across the Japanese islands. More than three-quarters of these samples displayed chemical signatures typical of freshwater or marine animals.

Of food crusts on 57 pottery pieces from seven Jōmon sites, 18 samples from two inland settlements contained fatty acids characteristic of fish or seafood oils. Inhabitants there were close enough to the sea for regular visits and could also have caught salmon that traveled up nearby rivers, Craig proposes.

His group hopes to perform chemical analyses of the 20,000-year-old Chinese pottery remains to find out whether they, too, were used for cooking.

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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