Friday, June 29, 2012

Pottery Invented 20,000 Years Ago In China, 10,000 Years Before Agriculture

The invention of pottery introduced fundamental shifts in human subsistence practices and sociosymbolic behaviors. Here, we describe the dating of the early pottery from Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi Province, China, and the micromorphology of the stratigraphic contexts of the pottery sherds and radiocarbon samples. 

The radiocarbon ages of the archaeological contexts of the earliest sherds are 20,000 to 19,000 calendar years before the present, 2000 to 3000 years older than other pottery found in East Asia and elsewhere. The occupations in the cave demonstrate that pottery was produced by mobile foragers who hunted and gathered during the Late Glacial Maximum. These vessels may have served as cooking devices. The early date shows that pottery was first made and used 10 millennia or more before the emergence of agriculture.

Pottery fragment from Xianrendong Cave in eastern China. 
Credit: photo courtesy of Science/ AAAS

BU Archaeology Department faculty members Paul Goldberg and David Cohen (ICEAACH), along with Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef (Harvard) and Prof. Wu Xiaohong 吴小红 (Peking University), were invited to take micromorphology and radiocarbon samples from the Late Pleistocene limestone cave site of Xianrendong 仙人洞, located in Wannian 万年 County, Jiangxi Province, China. This research, in early August 2009, was part of the Early Rice Agriculture Project, whose on-going work in neighboring Hunan Province has included the excavations of Yuchanyan 玉蟾岩 Cave and the dating of its "world's oldest" pottery to over 18,000 years ago (see description here).

Xianrendong Cave is well-known for its excavations during the 1990s, first in an early, international, collaborative project between Richard S. "Scotty" MacNeish, Peking University, and the Jiangxi Institute of Archaeology, and later by Peking University. The cave, along with nearby Diaotonghuan 吊桶环 rockshelter, yielded a long sequence that includes early pottery and evidence for the development of the early exploitation of rice.

Xianrendong Cave 

Because of the complexity of the cave deposits and the need to more-securely date them, the "Early Rice" team was invited to take sediment samples and radiocarbon samples from re-opened excavation squares at the site. Micromorphological analysis by Paul Goldberg will give a clearer picture about how the deposits in the cave were formed -- by both human activities and natural processes. By understanding this, we can also more reliably date the deposits with the new set of radiocarbon samples. Xianrendong potentially has pottery that is of similar age to Yuchanyan's, and a long history of humans using the cave site over a 10,000 year period.

Citation: Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China, Authors:  Xiaohong Wu, Chi Zhang, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, Yan Pan, Trina Arpin, Ofer Bar-Yosef
Science 29 June 2012:
Vol. 336 no. 6089 pp. 1696-1700
DOI: 10.1126/science.1218643

1 comment:

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