Prehistoric people in China fired the first pots 20,000 years ago at the peak of the last ice age, a study shows, adding new evidence that ceramic containers were invented before humans began farming 10,000 years later.
Carbon-dating by researchers from Peking University and Harvard University of bones and charcoal fragments dug up alongside ceramics at a cave in northern China’s Jiangxi province found that these were 2,000 to 3,000 years older than other pottery found in East Asia and elsewhere, according to a study published in the journal Science today.
“The long-held view was pottery appeared around the same period as agriculture and humans adopting settled lifestyles,” said Wu Xiaohong of the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University, one of the paper’s authors. “This research overturns that view.”
The invention of pottery brought a shift in human subsistence practices and social behaviors, the researchers said in the paper. As food resources were scarcer in the ice age and humans used up more energy to generate heat, they may have used ceramic containers to boil and extract fat from animal bones.
“Humans may have invented pottery to deal with the cold,” Wu said in a telephone interview from Beijing, adding that her group of researchers are seeking evidence to back up the theory. “Another theory is that humans wanted to eat mollusks, such as snails, and cooking in ceramic containers was the only way to kill bacteria and make it safe to eat.”
Mollusk shells were uncovered around other excavation sites, she said.
The earliest pottery may have played more of a social role among humans, rather than as a “very important economic technology,” said Gideon Shelach, the Louis Freiberg Professor of East Asian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who wrote a commentary accompanying the Science publication.
“My idea is that this was used more for social events, as people were living more densely during the height of the glacial age because less livable areas were available,” he said in a telephone interview. “That meant there was more tension and that required more feasting, so maybe cooking with pottery was done for better food, and for brewing alcohol.”
Pottery found in East Asia predates agriculture, according to the evidence found in China and Japan. Artifacts found in the Middle East postdate the transition to agriculture, which raises questions about the regional differences in the development of the two regions, Shelach said.