Pottery reveals Ice Age hunter-gatherers' taste for fish

Apr 10, 2013

Hunter-gatherers living in glacial conditions produced pots for cooking fish, according to the findings of a pioneering new study led by the University of York which reports the earliest direct evidence for the use of ceramic vessels.

Scientists from the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and Japan carried out chemical analysis of food residues in pottery up to 15,000 years old from the late , the oldest pottery so far investigated. It is the first study to directly address the often posed question "why humans made pots?" The research is published in Nature.

The research team was able to determine the use of a range of hunter-gatherer "Jōmon" ceramic vessels through chemical analysis of extracted from charred . The samples analysed are some of the earliest found in Japan, a country recognised to be one of the first centres for ceramic innovation, and date to the end of the - a time when humans were adjusting to changing climates and new environments.

Until quite recently ceramic container technologies have been associated with the arrival of farming, but we now know they were a much earlier hunter-gatherer adaptation, though the reasons for their emergence and subsequent widespread uptake are poorly understood. The first ceramic containers must have provided -gatherers with attractive new ways for processing and consuming foods but until now virtually nothing was known of how or for what early pots were used.

The researchers recovered diagnostic lipids from the charred surface deposits of the pottery with most of the compounds deriving from the processing of freshwater or . Stable isotope data support the lipid evidence, and suggest that the majority of the 101 charred deposits, analysed from across Japan, were derived from high trophic level aquatic foods.

Dr Oliver Craig, of the Department of Archaeology and Director of the BioArCh research centre at York, led the research. He said: "Foragers first used pottery as a revolutionary new strategy for the processing of marine and freshwater fish but perhaps most interesting is that this fundamental adaptation emerged over a period of severe climate change.

"The reliability and high abundance of food along shorelines and river-banks may well have provided the initial impetus for an investment in producing ceramic containers, perhaps to make the most of seasonal gluts or as part of elaborate celebratory feasts and could be linked to a reduction in mobility.

This initial phase of ceramic production probably paved the way for further intensification in the warmer climate of the Holocene when we see much more pottery on Japanese sites.

"This study demonstrates that it is possible to analyse organic residues from some of the world's earliest . It opens the way for further study of hunter-gatherer pottery from later periods to clarify the development of what was a revolutionary technology."

Explore further: Changing dinosaur tracks spurs novel approach

More information: 'Earliest evidence for the use of pottery' is published in Nature. dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature12109

Related Stories

Evidence of commerce between ancient Israel and China

Mar 04, 2008

Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries - during the time of the Crusades –ceramic vessels reached Acre from: Mediterranean regions, the Levant, Europe, North Africa, and even China – reveals new research, ...

Corn's roots dig deeper into South America

Mar 24, 2008

Corn has long been known as the primary food crop in prehistoric North and Central America. Now it appears it may have been an important part of the South American diet for much longer than previously thought, according to ...

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

19 hours ago

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

19 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...