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Jul. 13, 2012

Cave Find May Add 2,000 Years to Pottery Timeline

by Eli Chen

Click to enlarge images

Pottery pieces recently unearthed from a cave in China have pushed back the time when humans began developing the tools for food production, according to a recent study in the journal Science. The archaeologists who found the fragments say the pieces are from 19,000-20,000 years old, or about 2,000 years older than the oldest known pottery remains. (Those remains--from Yuchanyan Cave in Hunan, China--were estimated to be about 18,000 years old.)

Researchers from Boston University, Harvard University and Peking University discovered the pottery pieces in Xianrendong Cave in China’s Jiangxi Province. (The cave had been previously excavated in the 1960s.) According to the report, these newly found fragments appear to have been used around the end of the last ice age. At a time when resources may have been dwindling, humans could have developed pottery to store and process food, and to extract more from caloric value from available food, the researchers say. 

“If you cook and use pottery, you obtain more calories and grease from the bones,” said Harvard University’s Ofer Bar-Yosef, one of the study authors. 

The pottery pieces from the Xianrendong Cave have dark streaks that look like scorch marks, which suggests they may have been used for cooking, according to the study. The researchers also found a number of fragmented animal bones alongside the pottery pieces. Researchers say they need to further analyze the residue on these pieces to know how the pots were used.

To archaeologists, the invention of pottery is a turning point in the history of the human diet. It’s a step from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle towards agriculture, which current evidence shows did not begin until about 10,000 years ago, according to Dr. Bar-Yosef.

Miriam Stark, an archaeologist from the University of Hawaii who is unaffiliated with the study, says the findings may open up more discussion about hunter-gatherer lifestyles before the agricultural revolution.

Such finds require us to expand our models of complex hunter-gatherers globally,” wrote Dr. Stark in an e-mail. “Asian foragers evidently experimented with a range of food production technologies, but did not choose to settle down and rely on plant domestication.”

Stanley Ambrose, an anthropology professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who did not work on this study, believes that pottery development likely started in Asia because it’s an area where archaeologists speculate that large mammals, such as the woolly mammoth, first started going extinct. During the last ice age, humans depended primarily on these large animals for food, but these mammals’ declining populations could have forced humans to find other reliable ways to feed themselves. 

“If you have plenty of big animals around, why bother spending all this time collecting small seeded grains?” said Dr. Ambrose. “These must have been places where those large mammals began to go extinct.”

 

About Eli Chen

Eli Chen is a science and culture writer based in New York City, whose work has appeared in The New York Times and OnEarth Magazine. Her favorite stories often involve scientists putting animals through weird experiments.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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