Pottery fragments found in south China cave confirmed to be 20,000 years old: archaeologists
Pottery fragments found in a south China cave have been confirmed to be 20,000 years old, making them the oldest known pottery in the world, archaeologists say.
The findings, which will appear in the journal Science on Friday, add to recent efforts that have dated pottery piles in east Asia to more than 15,000 years ago, refuting conventional theories that the invention of pottery correlates to the period about 10,000 years ago when humans moved from being hunter-gathers to farmers.
The sherds shown in the photograph look like true vessel fragments as well, not some little ceramic lumps. Trying to get to the actual paper in Science. . . .
Here’s the abstract:
The invention of pottery introduced fundamental shifts in human subsistence practices and sociosymbolic behaviors. Here, we describe the dating of the early pottery from Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi Province, China, and the micromorphology of the stratigraphic contexts of the pottery sherds and radiocarbon samples. The radiocarbon ages of the archaeological contexts of the earliest sherds are 20,000 to 19,000 calendar years before the present, 2000 to 3000 years older than other pottery found in East Asia and elsewhere. The occupations in the cave demonstrate that pottery was produced by mobile foragers who hunted and gathered during the Late Glacial Maximum. These vessels may have served as cooking devices. The early date shows that pottery was first made and used 10 millennia or more before the emergence of agriculture.
Some descriptions of the overall assemblage:
All pottery is typically tempered with crushed quartzite or feldspar. Firing of the thick, more crudely made earliest pottery was probably carried out at relatively low temperatures in open fires. The earlier pottery is plain-surfaced or cord-marked, but some, from layer 3C1B, have parallel striations on the interior and exterior surfaces, probably from smoothing with grass fibers (fig. S1). Although no vessels could be reconstructed, they had rounded bottoms with walls 0.7 to 1.2 cm thick. Two vessel-forming techniques can be identified through visual observation: sheet laminating and coiling with paddling. Many sherds bear signs of burning on their exterior surface, possibly indicating their use in cooking.
So not rank amateurs, though the earlier ones seem to be a bit cruder and fired in the open rather than in any sort of kiln.
And here’s the conclusion:
Pottery making introduces a fundamental shift in human dietary history, and Xianrendong demonstrates that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for some 10,000 years before they became sedentary or began cultivating plants (17–19). The age for pottery production at Xianrendong of ~20,000 years ago coincides with the peak period of the last ice age, when there was a decrease in the productivity of regional food resources (20–22). When used for cooking, pottery allows energy gains from starch-rich food as well as meat (23), and scorch and soot marks on sherd exterior surfaces indicate that Xianrendong pottery likely was used for cooking. Residue, starch, or other physiochemical analyses of recovered early pottery sherds from Xianrendong and other Late Pleistocene sites in China have not been reported, so the exact function of this early pottery remains unknown. The Xianrendong assemblage contained a large number of fragmented bones, so the pottery could have been used in the extraction of marrow and grease (24, 25). Other known uses of pottery in hunter-gatherer societies include food preparation and storage, as well as brewing alcoholic beverages, and could play a vital social role in feasting (26). Thus, the early invention of pottery may have played a key role in human demographic and social adaptations to climate change in East Asia, leading to sedentism, and eventually to the emergence of wild rice cultivation during the early Holocene (17, 27).
That’s well into the Pleistocene which is really quite significant, even though it’s only a couple thousand years older than some previous ones (I’ve not kept up on the whole Earliest Pottery issue). The dating seems pretty secure, too, as they took pains to bracket the ceramics stratigraphically and ensure that the association was there. It does make some sense, not having pottery and domestication/sedentism(?) coeval, one might expect that the idea of turning clay into a storage/cooking vessel didn’t need agriculture to be invented.