In our modern world of metal technology and artificial plastics it’s easy to forget the importance of ceramics. However, there was a time when pottery was the only way to make vessels for cooking food or storing it. Doing so would’ve opened up a raft of new options for prehistoric people, such as using advanced cooking techniques to make previously inedible resources palatable. Alternatively by storing food they could’ve made lean times less harsh enabling larger populations or making previously inhospitable locations habitable.
However ceramics weren’t always utilised for such utilitarian purposes. The first instances of this technology come from a set of Eastern European sites (Dolni Vestonice, Pavlov and Piredmosti) which were inhabited by people 28-24,000 years BP. These individuals produced the Gravettian industry which included the famous Venus figurines. One such figurine, made from ceramics, is the earliest example of the technology we have.
Yet the Dolni Vestonice figurine is only one of over 10,000 pieces of ceramics recovered from these sites, most of the other pieces are mere fragments. Experimental archaeology has shown that such framentation would occur if the pieces exploded whilst being fired in the kiln but getting the poor quality loess the Gravettian people were using for clay to explode requires quite a bit of effort. This suggests that these explosions were intentional rather than accidents and they were deliberately blowing stuff up.
Whilst that is interesting in its own right it is still several steps removed from true “pottery.” This ceramic technology wasn’t advanced enough to produce the more utilitarian artefacts. Besides, they aren’t trying to do anything productive with it anyway, just exploding it. Whilst the Venus figurine might have been useful as a way of exchanging information it still isn’t in the same league as, say, a jug.
For the first vessels you have to travel closer to the present and around the world. They occur in Asia – typically China – and are dated to 16-14,000 years ago. The geological and chronological disconnect from the Eastern European pottery suggests that this is an independent invention and not the result of refining the methods which produced the famous “bangers” at Dolni Vestonice.
However, new dating of Chinese pottery sherds pushes back the invention of pottery by 3/4,000 years. The paper, published in Science , reports the radiocarbon dates obtained from Xianrendong cave where pottery was found in 1993. The dates indicate that this pottery is actually between 20,867 (+/- 318) to 19,283 (+/- 283) years BP.
Back in 1993 when Xianrendong cave was first excavated the team found 282 sherds of pottery. Whilst these finds were interesting, prompting further excavations in 1995 and the early 2000s, reliable dating of the cave was not possible. As such the information gathered from these sherds was of limited use since it could not really be put in a chronological framework. Whilst the technology did indicate they were produced in the Late Pleistocene the scientists couldn’t get more specific than that.
Nonetheless, they continued to analyse their finds and found several interesting things, including that these sherds came from curved vessels and some were smoothed with grass. Further, burning on one side indicates that these vessels were probably used for cooking. However, with the aforementioned lack of chronological context places severe limits on the usefulness of these interesting findings.
So in 2009 they returned to the cave and re-opened the two trenches they had first dug way back in 1993 in an effort to gather samples for radiocarbon dating, better study the stratigraphy of the site and perhaps even find some more pottery. Whilst they failed in the latter, recovering no new pottery from their trenches, they certainly succeeded with the former and gained a deep insight into the excavated trenches (if you’ll pardon the pun).
They recovered 69 new samples of bone to radiocarbon date and also ran an analysis on older samples from previous excavations which gave them a grand total of 99 samples for their analysis. This is a delightfully large number that helps ensures they get reliable results, a nice change from the limited sample size from other excavations I’ve complained about before.
Whilst this is one of the studies greatest strengths it is also one of their weakest points. It can be easy to contaminate samples and given 30 of them had been out of the ground for many years (and those which aren’t could’ve been disturbed by previous excavations, recall they re-opened previously dug trenches) there remains a real potential for such contamination.
However, the finds were taken in situ and they were sure to only use samples large enough that wouldn’t have been disturbed by the burrowing insects they found evidence of at the site. Methodological the researchers are sound and the reliability of their data is is cemented by the fact that most of their results are consistent with one another, suggesting they are indeed reliable. The odds that most of their samples could all have been contaminated to the same degree is very unlikely.
Their results show that the earliest pottery containing layer dates to between 20,867 (+/- 318) and 19,283 (+/- 283) years BP. This makes the pottery recovered from those layers the oldest pottery in the world.
These finds are particularly interesting because they place the earliest pottery towards the end of the last glacial maximum (“ice age”). During this period humans encountered a range of new phenomena, perhaps one of these is the driving force behind the invention of pottery.
Might pottery have been a a response to the harsh environment, which was forcing them to innovate new technologies? Alternatively might people clumping together in the remaining habitable refugia create the right demographic conditions for invention (denser populations are associated with more new ideas)? The latter is particularly interesting since the advent of farming the Middle East probably also produced a similar demographic shift, perhaps explaining why pottery in that area appears shortly after domestication does.
By pushing the date for the earliest pottery back to the last glacial maximum this find has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the context surrounding the advent of pottery. Whilst the dating isn’t perfect the flaws don’t appear to impact on the reliability of the study and so this remains an exciting find.
|Vandiver PB, Soffer O, Klima B, & Svoboda J (1989). The origins of ceramic technology at dolni vecaronstonice, czechoslovakia. Science (New York, N.Y.), 246 (4933), 1002-8 PMID: 17806391|
|Xiaohong Wu, Chi Zhang, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, Yan Pan, Trina Arpin, Ofer Bar-Yosef (2012). Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China Science, 336, 1696-1700 DOI: 10.1126/science.1218643|