A 20,000-year-old pottery fragment has been found in Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi Province in China. This is the oldest pottery yet found — it’s at least 2000-3000 years older than any pottery previously found in the world.
The researchers say that it was likely used for steaming or boiling food, or possibly to brew alcoholic drinks.
“What it seems is that in China, the making of pottery started 20,000 years ago and never stopped,” said Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard and lead author of the study. “The Chinese kitchen was always based on cooking and steaming; they never made, as in other parts of Asia, breads.”
During the last ten years, researchers had already found the remains of pottery that pre-dated the earliest evidence of agriculture. The new discovery suggests that the use of pottery could date back even further than 20,000 years ago.
It had previously been thought that pottery was ‘invented’ only after the spread of agriculture, since large pottery is fragile, being more suited to sedentary populations.
Commenting on why agriculture emerged before pottery in the Middle East but not also in China, Yosef said: “The kitchen of the Middle East was probably based on barbecues and pita breads,” he added. “For pita breads, you don’t have to have pottery — you can grind the seeds and mix it with water, and make it over the fire.”
The researchers think that the beginning of the use of pottery in China might have something to do with the cold temperatures at the time; 20,000 years ago, the time when the pottery is dated to, it was the coldest it had been for a million years.
The researchers speculate that the changes in food preparation, allowed by pottery, may have been beneficial enough to explain its rapid spread. Or, alternately, the pottery may have been used for brewing alcohol, or for storage of some sort.
Measuring the fragments of the bowl, the research team estimates that the bowl might have been around 20cm high and 15 to 25cm in diameter.
The cave where the pottery shards were found shows evidence of occupation during the Late Glacial Maximum, 20,000 years ago, by mobile groups of hunter-gatherers. The pottery discovered there dates back more than 10 millennia before the first signs of agriculture in the historical record.
Image Credits: AFP/Science/AAAS