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.
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.
Pottery invented in China to cook food and brew alcohol
By Pallab Ghosh Science correspondent, BBC News
The oldest known samples of pottery have been unearthed in southern China.
The US archaeologists involved have determined that fragments from a large bowl found in Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi Province, are 20,000 years old.
The discovery, published in the journal Science, is the latest in recent years that have pushed back the invention of pottery by 10,000 years.
It is thought that the bowl was a cauldron to cook food, or possibly to brew alcohol.
Until recently, the majority view was that pottery bowls and drink receptacles were invented after the emergence of agriculture, when people began to stay in one place for long periods.
Part of the reasoning was that pottery items are large and breakable, and so not a useful technology for hunter-gatherer societies that moved from place to place in search of food.
“People were gathering together in larger groups and you needed social activities to mitigate against increased tensions. Maybe the potteries were used to brew alcohol”
Prof Gideon ShelachHebrew University
But in the past 10 years, researchers have found instances of pottery pre-dating agriculture.
One possible reason for the invention of pottery is that 20,000 years ago the Earth was the coldest it had been for a million years.
According to the lead researcher, Prof Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, pottery cauldrons would have enabled people to extract more nutrition from their food by cooking it.
“Hunter-gatherers were under pressure to get enough food,” he told BBC News.
“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.”
Prof Gideon Shelach of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem speculates that there may also have been a social driver for the invention of pottery.
“People were gathering together in larger groups and you needed social activities to mitigate against increased tensions,” he told BBC News.
“Maybe those potteries were used to brew alcohol.
“It used to be thought that the beginning of pottery was associated with agriculture and sedentary lifestyle,” he added.
“Yet here we find it 8,000 years or more before this transition. This is a very puzzling situation.”
The archaeological team estimates from fragments of the bowl that it was 20cm high and 15-25cm in diameter.
Prof Bar-Yosef is keen to discover what these ancient people were cooking 20,000 years ago. He believes that whatever it was it was either steamed or boiled in the bowl.
“It’s probably not the first wok,” he said. “Cooking with oil began later.
“We think it was used for cooking with water, so it is more like a caldron”.
Earlier news: World’s oldest pottery? Science 2.6.2009 by Andrew Lawler
“A team of Israeli, Chinese, and American scholars says it has found ceramic remains in a cave in China’s Hunan province that are from 15,400 to 18,300 years old. That’s at least 1000 years earlier than other pottery fragments from the same region, which were previously thought to be the oldest in the world.
Bits of pottery nearly as old from Hunan caves had been found earlier, but some archaeologists suspected that the samples, tested using radiocarbon dating, were contaminated with a mineral called calcite, which was potentially older than the pottery itself.
To ensure that the new pottery fragments were dated accurately, team members led by Elisabetta Boaretto of Israel’s Bar Ilan University chose only the best preserved fragments of bone and charcoal associated with the pottery (radiocarbon dating requires testing of organic material) from a site known as Yuchanyan Cave, located in China’s Yangzi River basin. They screened out those potentially contaminated with the calcite. The team obtained a spread of dates stretching back more than 18,000 years.
The cave also offers a clear picture of what these late Paleolithic foragers ate. Remains of boar, birds, tortoise, fish, deer, and small mammals are evident, as well as rice–though whether it is wild or domesticated is not clear because rice is thought not to have been domesticated until thousands of years later.
The team says the find, reported online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, strengthens the view that the Yangzi and its tributaries served as an important center of early Holocene life. But why pottery emerged here so early–in contrast with southwest Asia, where plant domestication, bronzemaking, and other technologies took hold much earlier–remains a mystery.
Other scholars say they’re convinced by the new dating. “I like what they did; they really used the gold standard in their methodology,” says Gary Crawford, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto in Canada. Crawford says that the critical issue now is whether the technology of potterymaking spread from the Yangzi to Japan, where researchers have found vessels nearly as old as those in China. Some researchers believe that pottery originated in either Japan or China and then diffused to the other. Such a conclusion would be “premature,” notes Crawford. But Boaretto and her colleagues “certainly are implying that could be the case,” he says”.” — http://news.sciencemag.org/archaeology/2009/06/worlds-oldest-pottery