Monday, July 2, 2012

China Yields Oldest Pottery Fragments

This significant discovery confirms an earlier discovery, also in China, that pushes the invention of pottery back to well BEFORE the invention of agriculture, which occurred more or less about 10,000-9500 BCE.  So, what were people doing with pottery nearly 10,000 years BEFORE actual "agriculture?"  Well, they were hunting and gathering, of course, darlings :)  People needed something to store collected berries, grains, etc. etc. -- something more "permanent" and mouse-proof than woven baskets, for sure!  They also needed something to cook stuff in - besides sticking stuff on top of a flat stone or sticks! 

Well, that's my take on it, anyway.  See what you think:

From Popular Archaeology
The Earliest Known Pottery
June 28, 2012

A team of scientists led by Dr. Xiaohong Wu of Peking University has recently dated sediment layers containing pottery fragments in Xianrendong Cave in China and found them to be approximately 20,000 years old, predating the earliest known pottery dates by about 2,000 years, and predating the advent of agriculture by about 10,000 years. The finding refutes the long-held view that pottery production coincided with the beginning of agriculture.

Pottery fragment from Xianrendong [Image courtesy of Science/AAAS]

Pottery has been considered an important invention in the evolution of human society, as ceramic containers are more effective devices for holding and storing food than other prehistoric human constructs, such as baskets and hide pouches. And unlike other devices used for collecting and storage, pottery was also useful for cooking, an important development in food processing and preparation. Prior to these latest finds, the most ancient pottery, dated to about 18,000 years ago, was also found in China and Japan. The 20,000-year-old fragments date to the time of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which occurred about 25,000 to 19,000 years ago. Many of these early fragments showed burn or scorch marks, possible evidence of cooking.

States Gideon Shelach of the Hebrew University in his Perspective analysis of the discovery: "The period around the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), about 25,000 to 19,000 years ago, saw the advent of a new technological array that, in addition to pottery, included in many parts of China the production of small flake tools (or microliths) and grinding slab stones. It is widely held that the artifacts produced by these new technologies enabled exploitation of a wider range of plants and animals and more efficient extraction of their nutritional elements through grinding and intensive cooking". Moreover, he adds: "The proverb “necessity is the mother of all invention” not only assumes a direct functional explanation, but also assumes that conditions of stress (caused by external forces, such as climate change, or by internal social tension) force people to change their old ways of doing things. Such assumptions are embedded in the idea that the scarcity of resources during the LGM forced people to develop better ways of collecting and processing food".[1]

In other words, the harsh conditions served as a catalyst for spurring innovation necessary for survival. Humans had to "rise to meet the occasion". So they invented pottery, among other things.
But the extensive, widespread use of pottery as typically depicted within the context of the early human agricultural societies may not have come until perhaps thousands of years after its first use 20,000 years ago. Shelach, in his Perspective, makes this point using the archaeological evidence of grinding stones as an example: ".....The archaeological data suggest that grinding stones only started to be widely used toward the end of the last glacial age, ~13,000 years ago; ceramic production on a larger scale may have commenced even later. It is thus likely that these technologies initially had a much more limited set of functions, and that their full socioeconomic potential remained dormant until ecological and social conditions provided opportunities for the realization of this potential."[1]

The evidence supporting the suggestion that use of pottery significantly predates the development of agriculture could lead to a paradigm shift in the generally accepted scenarios of human socio-economic development. But it could also mean something else -- namely, that the evolution of human socio-economic development differed in different regions of the world. [Or not -- we just haven't found evidence -- yet -- of equally old pottery fragments elsewhere.  Keep looking, I think we'll all be amazed at what will eventually be uncovered as we get more sophisticated in our methodology and analysis :)]

Says Shelach: "More general issues awaiting serious consideration include, for example, whether the fact that in East Asia pottery predates agriculture by some 10 millennia, whereas in the Levant it postdates the transition to agriculture, signifies a fundamental difference in the socioeconomic development of the two regions".[1]

This research appears in the 29 June 2012 issue of Science. Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
[1] Shelach, Gideon, On the Invention of Pottery, Science, 29 June 2012, Vol. 336.

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