Published online 1 June 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.534

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Earliest evidence for pottery making found

Fragments from a Chinese cave push back the dawn of the craft by more than 1,000 years.

Ancient potteryPot fragments have been found in Yuchanyan Cave before but dating them has proved tricky.Boston University / Hunan Provincial Museum

Shards of pottery dating back 18,000 years have been unearthed in a cave in Hunan province, southern China.

The manufacture of ceramic pots and other items is generally associated with the change from Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies into sedentary Neolithic communities, which began about 10,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean. But pottery manufacture began considerably earlier in East Asia, during the late Paleolithic. Until now, the earliest previous finds in East Asia were dated to 15,000–16,000 years ago.

In a new study1, physicist Elisabetta Boaretto of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and archaeologist Xiaohong Wu of Peking University in Beijing and their colleagues show that humans were making containers out of fired clay even earlier than was previously thought.

Other excavations in the area around Yuchanyan Cave have unearthed early human settlements from the Late Pleistocene period. But dating finds from these sites have proved challenging. The complex layers of ash, clay and gravel make the sites difficult to analyse and it has been hard to find pure samples of organic material such as charcoal and bone for carbon dating.

"In environments in which there is a lot of ash, charcoal doesn't preserve well, and throughout China there are deposits of windborne dust that contain a lot of calcite, an element of wood ash," explains Boaretto's colleague Steve Weiner, of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science at the Weizmann Institute.

Normally, an excavation project would seek to date as many carbon samples as possible, explains Boaretto. But in this case, the team conducted pre-screening in the field and then did a preliminary analysis in the lab of some 150 initial samples using infrared and Raman spectroscopy. Only the 30 samples that these tests showed to be clean and well preserved then underwent carbon-dating analysis. By carefully analysing the layers of earth around the pottery shards to note any disturbances — for example, fire hearths and animal burrows — the team could determine which carbon samples were most closely related to the pottery finds.

Precise dating

The team's carbon dating suggests charcoal and bone samples obtained from the site are 21,000 to 13,800 years old, whereas those located just above and below the pottery shards are about 18,000 years old. The latter date also matched that of the layer of sediment in which the shards were found. The finds included enough fragments to reconstruct one complete cauldron with a pointed base that stands some 29 centimetres high.

Weiner does not think that these finds lend support to either side in the debate over whether East Asian pottery developed in a single place and then spread through what is now China, southern Russia and Japan, or whether the technology emerged separately in different places.

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"But thanks to precise dating technology, it shows the beginning of the tradition and pushes back what people have thought was the beginning of pottery making by a few thousand years," he says.

Gideon Shelach, an archaeologist in the Department of East Asian Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says that Boaretto and Wu's results confirm and extend the existing picture of a lengthy East Asian Paleolithic-Neolithic transition. This seems to have taken place at a much more gradual pace than the developments that led to the world's first fully sedentary societies in the eastern Mediterranean.

"There are a lot of excavations going on in China now, and I suspect that there will be many more discoveries that will give us a better understanding of the development of human society in this part of the world," Shelach predicts. 

  • References

    1. Boarettoa, E. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. advance online publication doi: 10.1073/pnas.0900539106 (2009).

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  • #60626

    It seems that the human culture was far advances at an early time. The neolitic revolution was perhaps not any inventory revolution at all, but only that people began to grow crops at a grand scale out of necessity, a necessity that was not there very much before, and therefore people used agricultural techiques only to a small degree a very long time. MadelineI @weebly.com

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