This fragment is the oldest known piece of pottery. It was found in Xianrendong Cave, Southern China, and dates to around 20,000 years ago1.

Such old, much fragment, very wow.

This date places it towards the end of the last ice age’s peak. Back then, pottery would’ve been invaluable to survival, as poor climate made food scarce. Being able to better store, carry, and cook it in pots could’ve been the difference between life and death.

All of which makes it kinda weird that there are even older examples of ceramic technology, from deeper in the ice age, that are nowhere near as practical.

Ceramics explode onto the scene

People actually discovered ceramics a few thousand years earlier, at the peak of the last ice age, ~26,000 years ago. Thousands of baked clay fragments have been found across Eastern Europe from this period. At Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic, they used this technology to make this beautiful Venus figurine2.

The Dolni Vestonice ceramic figurine

Yet figurines like this represent a tiny minority of finds. Of the >10,000 pieces of ceramics recovered from the region, most of the tiny, broken fragments. Thanks to experimental archaeology (aka trying to make pottery the old-timey way) we now know this debris is the result of misfiring the ceramics, causing them to explode2.

The weird thing is, this doesn’t seem to have been accidental. The people living at these sites went out of their way to get poor quality clay that would explode, despite the fact better materials were available. Except those better materials don’t blow up all cool like2.

Was this part of a ritual? Just a bit of fun? Whatever’s going on, it does seem a bit odd that this is what they were using ceramics for. Particularly, since the area was in the grips of the ice age at the time. These people have technology that could help make survival easier, but are instead using it for party tricks?

A reconstruction of Dolni Vestonice

Of course, that is assuming those symbolic functions weren’t crucial to survival. They may well have been. In these conditions, maintaining good relationships with your neighbours is vital to survival. Many modern hunter-gatherer groups will go out of their way to meet up and bond.

What better way to do this than over a Palaeolithic firework show?

Practical pottery

Eventually, though, someone realised you can use pottery as more than entertainment for the evening. This shift towards more practical pots marked the start of a technical revolution that continues today!

There are entire groups of prehistoric people defined (at least by archaeologists) by the pottery they used

All of which brings us to ~200 pottery fragments from Xianrendong Cave, South China; some of which might represent the oldest examples of pottery found. Excavations at the site were rudely interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, but when scientists were able to return in 1993 they found all these cool pottery shards!

At first, these discoveries didn’t cause much of a stir because everybody thought they were relatively recent. However, in 2012 they were re-dated to ~20,000 years ago. This places them towards the end of the last ice age, and around 4,000 years before the next oldest example of practical pottery1.

Stratigraphy of Xianrendong cave
Excavations at Xianrendong. Now that is some sexy stratigraphy1.

Or at least, some of them were re-dated to be that old. Specifically, a handful of fragments making up a single pot seemed to be ice age-age. Not enough of the pot is preserved to figure out what it was used for, although burning on one side makes “cooking” a strong possibility1.

Meanwhile, the rest of the 200 fragments were made much more recently since occupation (and pottery making) continued intermittently until 7,000 BC1.

Reconstruction of the first pot
A reconstruction of what might be the world’s first pot.

Dating the oldest pottery

Of course, this more recent pottery raises a spooky possibility. What if the “old pottery” is just some of the newer stuff that got jumbled into an older layer? So research at Xianrendong continues in an effort to figure out whether any stratigraphic jumbling has happened3.

I won’t leave you in agony any longer, as I can tell you’re just dying to know the integrity of the pottery assemblage. Much to our relief, this follow-up work has confirmed the old fragments do belong to the old layer. This unimpressive shards really are the oldest example of pottery we’ve found3.

Xianrendong sherds
Some of the sherds recovered from Xianrendong cave. Note the scratches, indicating they were smoothed by grass or a similar material.

As well as confirming the age of these pots, this ongoing research has made a few other interesting discoveries. For one, it seems people never really lived in the cave. Instead, it was mostly as a rubbish dump and a place for hearths (maybe to make some lovely trash fires)3.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Xianrendong is its location. It’s almost on the other side of the world to Dolni Vestonice and the other early examples of ceramics. As such, the two inventions had nothing to do with each other. It seems that humans around the world were independently figuring out how great pottery was.

My humorous mugs thank them for it.

References

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Patania, I., Goldberg, P., Cohen, D.J., Wu, X., Zhang, C. and Bar-Yosef, O., 2019. Micromorphological analysis of the deposits at the early pottery Xianrendong cave site, China: formation processes and site use in the Late Pleistocene. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, pp.1-21.

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12 thoughts on “The explosive origins of pottery during the last ice age”

  1. This is awesome. I’m fascinated by anything older than 6,000 years (which I used to believe was the age of the Earth), because I’m like, “Hey, this means that this stuff was 13 millenniums old when God said ‘Let there be light!'”

    I’m also really interested in the dating methods, because of all the propaganda I heard about why carbon dating isn’t accurate. So thanks.

    1. Nothing makes young earth creationism seem more silly than science just doing science. It’s just so divorced from what we discover on a daily basis that it gets to the point where you almost forget that there are people who believe the world is young. And then when you’re reminded it seems so absurd you can’t help but laugh.

      I’m interested as to how a real dating methods contrast with the perception creationists like to promote. Whilst I was a Christian (and a creationist) at one point I never consumed any of their literature so never had my view of the world distorted. Looking over my discussion of the dating and the results presented (and other such discussion/results you’ve seen), how do they differ from what you might have expected given that propaganda you heard?

      1. Creationists would just have said that carbon dating is unreliable. There was a common creationist anecdote about a rock that was somehow “known” to be young (as in a hundred years or something. Is there even such thing as a young rock?) being dated to millions of years by carbon dating.

        Therefore carbon dating has been wrong; therefore carbon dating is never reliable. QED.

        I’m still getting my head around the proper response to creationists who argue that rates of radioactive decay may have changed over time. From what I can tell, we can triangulate with other dating methods, and also the change in rate necessary for their worldview is simply preposterous.

  2. There’s a page at talkorigins.org that summarises the arguments against a variation in radioactive decay rates:

    http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CF/CF210.html

    The one that I like the most is that the if the observed amount of decay had occurred in the last 6k years it would melted the earth.

    Interestingly, since the rate of decay is determined by physical constants and physical constants are supposed to be constant, any variation is big news. An astronomical team has inferred a small variation in the “fine structure constant” by looking at the light from quasars in different directions. The variation they got is 6 ppm in 10 billion years. This won’t affect any radio carbon dates but is big news in theoretical physics if correct. It may turn out to be an artifact but the result has held up for a few years. The naturally occurring Oklo reator that was running a couple of billion years ago provides a limit on the variation of the constant; if it had been more that a tiny bit different the reactor wouldn’t have worked or would have produced different decay products. The decay products are about what you’d get today, although an investigation, quoted in Wikipedia, found a tiny change. As physics this is interesting, but pretty shadowy given the shortage of test points, but for dating purposes over anthropological or even biological time scales we can say the constancy of decay is confirmed to a very high degree of accuracy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-structure_constant

  3. Those who express concern about radiocarbon samples being contaminated after their recovery have a reasonable basis for such concerns, but that concern is one that was addressed several decades ago. In 1990 the American National Science Foundation gave a generous grant to the NSF Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Tucson, to explore that very question. The specific concern that sparked the research was the challenge of dating material found in an ethnographic context, that is; not an old object excavated from an undisturbed archaeological site, but an object that had continued to be used in a culture, leaving it exposed to contamination with materials containing more modern carbon, but also with contaminants that contained ancient carbon. As two simple examples; butters or animal fats could contaminate a sample with more modern carbon, while tar or oil would contain, and contaminate a sample with, carbon that was quite ancient.

    Before that work was finished a total of five radiocarbon laboratories around the world had joined in the investigation. While their work was published, I think it deserves more publicity than it got at the time. The simple answer is that (a) contamination of a porous sample can skew a radiocarbon test result, but (b) it is relatively easy, and widely understood that radiocarbon sample preparation needs to include careful cleaning before the carbon is extracted for testing. I have seen a number of images of textile samples that were made prior to sample preparation, and after. The stringency of the preparation is obvious.

    The amount of the unstable Carbon-14 element in the atmosphere varies somewhat, from historic year-to-year and decade to decade, in response to changes in the surface of the sun over time. Those differences have been addressed by a stunningly painstaking study at the University of Washington that involved the dating of the individual yearly tree-rings in an ancient tree stump that had lived for thousands of years. Each ring reflected the physical environment in the year which it had grown, giving a remarkable record of the variations in C-14 from year-to-year. What is clear from that enormous body of data is that while there are variations in C-14 in the atmosphere, that the range of such variation is not significant enough to cast doubt on the test method.

    It would be interesting to know what pre-test cleaning was done to the samples found in China, but if samples taken directly from an ancient strata appear to be dating the same as samples removed and stored earlier, that would appear to argue for those earlier excavated samples having been carefully handled and kept from contamination.

    I can’t comment intelligently on the idea that the earth was formed six-thousand years ago. I wasn’t there. But if that were true, one would need to believe that enormous efforts were made, as part of that creation process, to craft a marvelously complicated and misleading body of evidence that the earth was Billions of years old. Why a supreme being would engage in such a mind-bendingly complicated effort is difficult to explain.

  4. Any chance that the small shards that exploded are early examples of pyometric cones?
    I assume I am not the first to think of this and so was curious how this was determined not to be the case.

    1. As with so much of archaeology, it can never be really ruled out. However, the poor quality of the materials used would make them pretty rubbish indicators for proper ceramics, as they’d likely have prematurely popped.

  5. My interest in the early human development (tools, clothing and language) was sparked by the story of dating the evolution of the louse by its DNA and from that, the dawn of clothing. I’m reading Climate, Clothing and Culture in Prehistory and, as yet, it hasn’t made mention of social cohesion so I am glad you did. Investigating tools, pottery, clothing, etc seems senseless without thinking about their effect on the development social development and language. And it seems that responses containing well-known chestnuts about radiocarbon dating should be saved for articles about radiocarbon dating.

    1. Social networks are key for hunter-gatherer survival. Considering one without the other is just pointless.

      This article did use to have more of a focus on radiocarbon dating, but I’ve been able to update it with the latest research thanks to support on patreon. For instance, the stratigraphic integrity of the site has been confirmed, rendering the radiocarbon dates much more reliable than I implied in earlier iterations.

  6. Enjoyable read, as always. I’d just like to point out there’s a recurrent typo or error in the text. It’s “Vestonice”, not “Vestonici”. Keep up the good work!

    1. Well I spelt it right once, making the fact I think misspelt it several times real confusing to me. Thanks for pointing it out.

      If you like the site, please help consider helping me keep the (metaphorical) lights on through pateron.

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