Study Finds Earliest Evidence Yet of Pottery Used for Cooking

According to a pioneering study detailed in the journal Nature, hunter-gatherers were using pots for cooking fish as early as 15,000 years ago.

Left: a reconstructed Incipient Jomon vessel from Torihama, Japan (Wakasa History and Folklore Museum). Right: an Incipient Jomon pot from Kubodera-minami, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, about 15,000 years old (Tokamchi City Museum)

Left: a reconstructed Incipient Jomon vessel from Torihama, Japan (Wakasa History and Folklore Museum). Right: an Incipient Jomon pot from Kubodera-minami, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, about 15,000 years old (Tokamchi City Museum)

An international team of scientists carried out chemical analysis of food residues in hunter-gatherer ‘Jomon’ ceramic vessels from the late glacial period, the oldest pottery so far investigated. The samples analyzed are some of the earliest found in Japan, a country recognized to be one of the first centers for ceramic innovation, and date to the end of the Late Pleistocene – a time when humans were adjusting to changing climates and new environments.

Until quite recently ceramic container technologies have been associated with the arrival of farming, but we now know they were a much earlier hunter-gatherer adaptation, though the reasons for their emergence and subsequent widespread uptake are poorly understood. The first ceramic containers must have provided prehistoric hunter-gatherers with attractive new ways for processing and consuming foods but until now virtually nothing was known of how or for what early pots were used.

The team recovered diagnostic lipids from the charred surface deposits of the pottery with most of the compounds deriving from the processing of freshwater or marine organisms. Stable isotope data support the lipid evidence, and suggest that the majority of the 101 charred deposits, analyzed from across Japan, were derived from high trophic level aquatic foods.

“Foragers first used pottery as a revolutionary new strategy for the processing of marine and freshwater fish but perhaps most interesting is that this fundamental adaptation emerged over a period of severe climate change,” said Dr Oliver Craig from the BioArCh research center, the University of York, UK.

He said: “the reliability and high abundance of food along shorelines and river-banks may well have provided the initial impetus for an investment in producing ceramic containers, perhaps to make the most of seasonal gluts or as part of elaborate celebratory feasts and could be linked to a reduction in mobility. This initial phase of ceramic production probably paved the way for further intensification in the warmer climate of the Holocene when we see much more pottery on Japanese sites.”

“This study demonstrates that it is possible to analyze organic residues from some of the world’s earliest ceramic vessels. It opens the way for further study of hunter-gatherer pottery from later periods to clarify the development of what was a revolutionary technology.”

______

Bibliographic information: Craig OE et al. Earliest evidence for the use of pottery. Nature, published online April 10, 2013; doi: 10.1038/nature12109