Pottery making may not have emerged in one Big Bang–like event. Instead, it was
more like a cluster of ceramic eruptions among ancient East Asian
hunter-gatherer groups as the last Ice Age waned, a new study suggests.

East Asian hunter-gatherer populations living about 700
kilometers apart made and used cooking pots in contrasting ways between around
16,200 and 10,200 years ago, says a team led by Shinya Shoda, an archaeologist
currently based at the University of York in England. Each of those groups probably
invented its own distinctive pottery-making techniques
, the scientists
suspect. 

“Our results indicate that there was greater variability in
the development and use of early pottery than has been appreciated,” Shoda
says.

Pieces of ceramic cooking pots from one group preserved
chemical markers of fish, including salmon, Shoda’s group reports in the Feb. 1
Quaternary Science Reviews. Early
pottery making by those hunter-gatherers accompanied seasonal harvests of
migrating fish, the researchers say.

Fatty acids extracted from remnants of a second group’s pots
came from hoofed animals such as sheep or goats. Those vessels were used to
render grease from animals’ bones, the team suggests.  

Each group appears to have had its own pottery-making style.
Members of the Osipovka culture, who lived along the Lower Amur River in what’s
now the Russian Far East, crafted cone-shaped vessels with flat bottoms and
thick walls. Clay paste was mixed with gravel and other material. Inside and
sometimes outside surfaces of pots were scraped with tools like combs.

At sites of the Gromatukha culture, situated on the banks of
the Amur River and its tributaries northwest of Osipovka sites, researchers
found slightly curved pots that rested on either flat or round bases. Clay was
typically mixed with grass, especially in the oldest pots. Cord marks and
zigzag patterns cover many vessels.

Other researchers have reported that the
earliest known pottery
, from Xianrendong Cave in southern China, dates to
roughly 20,000 years ago (SN: 6/28/12).
Although there has been debate about the accuracy of that age estimate, “it is
certain that the world’s oldest pottery gradually emerged in East and Northeast
Asia from 20,000 to 10,000 years ago,” says archaeologist Hiroyuki Sato of the
University of Tokyo. That timing corresponds with the end of the Pleistocene
Ice Age, which lasted from roughly 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago.

Chemical residue findings for the Gromatukha pottery challenge
a currently popular view among researchers that the earliest pottery was used
only for cooking fish and shellfish, says Sato, who did not participate in the
new study. Shoda’s group provides the first chemical evidence of land animals
being cooked in some of the world’s earliest clay pots.

The researchers analyzed chemical residues on 23 pot shards
from three Osipovka sites and five pot shards from one Gromatukha site.  Signs of fish having been cooked in Osipovka
pots came as no surprise, Shoda says. More than 100 freshwater fish species
currently inhabit the Amur River, as well as fish such as salmon that return to
the river to spawn from late spring to early fall.

Past excavations of at least 15 sites indicate that Osipovka
pottery was produced in large quantities only after around 13,700 years ago.
Osipovka people probably started out using ceramic pots to prepare fish for
special events or ceremonies, not daily meals, the researchers speculate.

Only three Gromatukha sites have been excavated, so less is
known about pottery making in that culture. But chemical residues indicate that
the Gromatukha menu leaned heavily on land animals, Shoda says.

In a 2016 paper, Shoda and his colleagues reported chemical
evidence of what they now regard as a third, comparably old
pottery-making tradition that arose in Japan
. Distinctive pots of Japan’s Jōmon
culture, unearthed at one well-preserved site, were used to cook fish and
mollusks from around 14,000 years ago until as late as 5,000 years ago, the
scientists found.