Historical story

Pottery even older than thought

Potters in prehistoric China were there even earlier than we knew. Potsherds dating back 20,000 years have been found in a cave. That is more than 10,000 years before the discovery of agriculture. But what was this prehistoric tableware for?

Not long ago, scientists thought that the art of ceramic pottery firing developed more or less at the same time as the discovery of agriculture, which began in East Asia between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. After all, sealable jars are very suitable for keeping grains and seeds dry and safe. That idea was thrown overboard a few years ago when archaeologists in China found pots that turned out to be at least 17,000 years old.

Even older potsherds have now been found in Xianrendong Cave, in eastern China. Chinese archaeologists led by Xiaohong We write this this week in Science . Between 29,000 and 12,000 years ago, this cave was regularly used as a shelter.

The shards, which appear to be around 20,000 years old, date from the height of the last Ice Age. This period is known as the Last Glacial Maximum, when most of the world's water was stored in ice.

According to the scientists, the function of the ancient pots remains unclear. This type of prehistoric tableware was often used for cooking. Cooking meats and starchy products made these foods more palatable and more nutritious – not a luxury during the height of an ice age. However, no traces of starch or heating were found on the oldest potsherds. Archaeologists did find traces of shattered bones nearby. It is possible that cave dwellers used the pottery to crush bones to extract bone marrow and animal fat.

Bitter necessity?

According to Gideon Shelach, who specializes in the archeology of prehistoric China, who commented on the publication in Science wrote, it is often thought that technical advances—including pottery making—allowed early humans to expand their daily menu, a dire necessity during the Cold Ice Age. Hard foods such as millet and wild rice must first be cooked or ground before they can be eaten, which involved pottery and tools. This would eventually have led to the development of agriculture.

But Shelach also points out that archaeological finds show that tools such as mortars and grindstones – a strong indication of a more extensive menu – were not widely used until 13,000 years ago. The pottery found could very well have had a much more limited function. For example, grinding berries or making pigment for cave drawings. In other words, it is also quite possible that this ancient pottery had nothing at all to do with the prelude to the agricultural revolution.

There is still much debate about what exactly the art of pottery contributed to the important transition from a hunter-gatherer culture to the first farmers. The question of why the ancient Chinese knew and applied the technology some 10,000 years before the agricultural revolution, while in the rest of the world it only developed during this transition is still unanswered.

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