Pottery usage among hunter-gatherers was considered somewhat anomalous and counter-intuitive; fragile pots did not seem to have a place in the mobile lifestyles thought to characterize most human existence before the advent of farming villages during the Neolithic, from about 10,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean. But the discovery of lipids on ceramic vessels in East Asia dating from the Late Pleistocene, about 15,000–12,000 years ago, presented by Craig et al.2 in a paper published on Nature's website today, suggests that some hunter-gatherers used pots for cooking. The report also provides a demonstration of how science should be integral to our piecing together of history.
Our knowledge that ceramic containers were being made and used by hunter-gatherers in the Late Pleistocene in various parts of East Asia — from Japan to far eastern Russia and north and south China — means that pottery usage among hunter-gatherers is no longer seen as anomalous in the Old World. In fact, there may be evidence for routes of the introduction of pottery into Europe that are not associated with the introduction of farming13.From the paper itself:
From both the bulk stable isotope data and the more specific product identifications based on available lipid data, we suggest that aquatic products were the most frequently processed products in Incipient Jōmon pottery, through the fluctuating climate and across a range of environments, from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. Whether ceramic vessels were integral to the processing of aquatic resources or, as is suggested by their rarity, were used only occasionally, perhaps ceremonially or as a prestige technology24, remains debatable.Nature (2013) doi:10.1038/nature12109
Earliest evidence for the use of pottery
O. E. Craig et al.
Pottery was a hunter-gatherer innovation that first emerged in East Asia between 20,000 and 12,000 calibrated years before present1, 2 (cal BP), towards the end of the Late Pleistocene epoch, a period of time when humans were adjusting to changing climates and new environments. Ceramic container technologies were one of a range of late glacial adaptations that were pivotal to structuring subsequent cultural trajectories in different regions of the world, but the reasons for their emergence and widespread uptake are poorly understood. The first ceramic containers must have provided prehistoric hunter-gatherers with attractive new strategies for processing and consuming foodstuffs, but virtually nothing is known of how early pots were used. Here we report the chemical analysis of food residues associated with Late Pleistocene pottery, focusing on one of the best-studied prehistoric ceramic sequences in the world, the Japanese Jomon. We demonstrate that lipids can be recovered reliably from charred surface deposits adhering to pottery dating from about 15,000 to 11,800?cal?BP (the Incipient Jomon period), the oldest pottery so far investigated, and that in most cases these organic compounds are unequivocally derived from processing freshwater and marine organisms. Stable isotope data support the lipid evidence and suggest that most of the 101 charred deposits analysed, from across the major islands of Japan, were derived from high-trophic-level aquatic food. Productive aquatic ecotones were heavily exploited by late glacial foragers3, perhaps providing an initial impetus for investment in ceramic container technology, and paving the way for further intensification of pottery use by hunter-gatherers in the early Holocene epoch. Now that we have shown that it is possible to analyse organic residues from some of the world’s earliest ceramic vessels, the subsequent development of this critical technology can be clarified through further widespread testing of hunter-gatherer pottery from later periods.