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.
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.
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?
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.