Letter | Published:

Earliest evidence for the use of pottery

Nature volume 496, pages 351354 (18 April 2013) | Download Citation



Pottery was a hunter-gatherer innovation that first emerged in East Asia between 20,000 and 12,000 calibrated years before present1,2 (cal bp), towards the end of the Late Pleistocene epoch, a period of time when humans were adjusting to changing climates and new environments. Ceramic container technologies were one of a range of late glacial adaptations that were pivotal to structuring subsequent cultural trajectories in different regions of the world, but the reasons for their emergence and widespread uptake are poorly understood. The first ceramic containers must have provided prehistoric hunter-gatherers with attractive new strategies for processing and consuming foodstuffs, but virtually nothing is known of how early pots were used. Here we report the chemical analysis of food residues associated with Late Pleistocene pottery, focusing on one of the best-studied prehistoric ceramic sequences in the world, the Japanese Jōmon. We demonstrate that lipids can be recovered reliably from charred surface deposits adhering to pottery dating from about 15,000 to 11,800 cal bp (the Incipient Jōmon period), the oldest pottery so far investigated, and that in most cases these organic compounds are unequivocally derived from processing freshwater and marine organisms. Stable isotope data support the lipid evidence and suggest that most of the 101 charred deposits analysed, from across the major islands of Japan, were derived from high-trophic-level aquatic food. Productive aquatic ecotones were heavily exploited by late glacial foragers3, perhaps providing an initial impetus for investment in ceramic container technology, and paving the way for further intensification of pottery use by hunter-gatherers in the early Holocene epoch. Now that we have shown that it is possible to analyse organic residues from some of the world’s earliest ceramic vessels, the subsequent development of this critical technology can be clarified through further widespread testing of hunter-gatherer pottery from later periods.

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We thank the Leverhulme trust (F/00 152/AM) and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (PE 11560) for their support. We are grateful to K. Adachi, K. Higashi, Y. Kasai, H. Kato, K. Nagahama, H. Oguma, T. Tsuchiya, T. Watanabe and T. Yamahara for providing access to samples.

Author information


  1. BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD, UK

    • O. E. Craig
    • , H. Saul
    • , A. Lucquin
    • , K. Taché
    •  & D. T. Altoft
  2. Niigata Prefectural Museum of History, Sekihara 1, Nagaoka, Niigata 940-2035, Japan

    • H. Saul
    •  & Y. Nishida
  3. Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, Richmond Road, Bradford BD7 1DP, UK

    • L. Clarke
    •  & C. P. Heron
  4. Division of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences, School of Science and Environmental Science, Manchester Metropolitan University, Chester Street, Manchester M1 5GD, UK

    • L. Clarke
  5. School of Environmental Sciences, Nicholson Building, 4 Brownlow Street, The University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3GP, UK

    • A. Thompson
  6. Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, 457-4 Kamigamo-motoyama, Kita-ku, Kyoto 603-8047, Japan

    • J. Uchiyama
  7. Wakasa History and Folklore Museum, Onyu 2-104, Obama, Fukui 917-0241, Japan

    • M. Ajimoto
  8. Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 3UF, UK

    • K. Gibbs
  9. Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

    • S. Isaksson
  10. The Archaeological Research Laboratory, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

    • S. Isaksson
  11. Arctic Centre, University of Groningen, PO Box 716, 9700 AS Groningen, Netherlands

    • P. Jordan


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O.E.C., H.S., Y.N., S.I. and P.J. planned the project. O.E.C. wrote the paper with assistance from all other authors. P.J., H.S., Y.N. and K.G. carried out sampling with assistance of M.A. and J.U., who provided contextual data. O.E.C., H.S., A.L., K.T., D.A. and A.T. carried out the lipid analysis. C.P.H. and L.C. carried out the bulk stable isotope analyses. All authors commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to O. E. Craig.

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-4 and Supplementary References. Tables 1-4 contain contextual details (including radiocarbon dates) of each of the sites investigated, a summary of the lipid residue analysis results, bulk isotope characteristics of each sample analysed and a summary of the reference isotope values used to derive the fields in Figure 2B.

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