Working in southern China, a team of scientists have reportedly discovered pieces of ancient pottery that could redefine the history of mankind and his relationship with food.
The shards of pottery, which date back 20,000 years, make them the world’s oldest known pottery — 2,000 to 3,000 years older than examples found in East Asia and elsewhere, say scientists. The research by a team of Chinese and American scientists pushes the emergence of pottery back to the last ice age, which might provide new explanations for the creation of pottery.
“What it seems is that in China, the making of pottery started 20,000 years ago and never stopped,” Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard and an author of the study, told the New York Times. “The Chinese kitchen was always based on cooking and steaming; they never made, as in other parts of Asia, breads.”
“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.”
According to the new findings, which will be published on Friday in the journal Science, humans first began using clay vessels some 11,000 years before the agricultural revolution in China, during a period in which people still lived in small nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers.
The study is seen as a major new discovery that could redefine mankind’s relationship with cooking and food, say scientists.
The discovery is the latest from the team of scientists. The same team in 2009 published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which they determined the pottery fragments found in south China’s Hunan province to be 18,000 years old. The pottery discovered at the time was considered one of the oldest pieces ever recovered by scientists. The team of scientists revisited Xianrendong Cave, a prehistoric site about 60 miles south of the Yangtze River that over the decades had yielded an array of artifacts, including tools made of stone, bone, and shells; animal bones; and fragments of pottery.
Speaking Thursday, Dr. Wu noted that the difference in age between the two pieces was fairly significant, considering the nearly 2,000 year gap.
“The difference of 2,000 years might not be significant in itself, but we always like to trace everything to its earliest possible time,” Wu said. “The age and location of pottery fragments help us set up a framework to understand the dissemination of the artifacts and the development of human civilization.”
Dr. Wu said the latest finding was exciting and would provide incentive for additional discoveries. Scientists say the discovery would likely allow scientists to better understand the culture of humans living in the region at the time.
“We are very excited about the findings. The paper is the result of efforts done by generations of scholars,” Wu said. “Now we can explore why there was pottery in that particular time, what were the uses of the vessels, and what role they played in the survival of human beings.”
Professor Gideon Shelach of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who collaborated with the team, speculates that there may have been a social driver for the invention of pottery.
“People were gathering together in larger groups and you needed social activities to mitigate against increased tensions,” said Mr. Shelach.
“It used to be thought that the beginning of pottery was associated with agriculture and sedentary lifestyle,” he added. ”Yet here we find it 8,000 years or more before this transition. This is a very puzzling situation.”
Still others note that because the early pottery dates to a period when the glaciers were large and the environment might have been harsh, the pots could have proved useful in making maximum use of resources. For example, they may have been used to cook crushed bones and extract precious nutrients.