World’s oldest pots

Ice age people made cookware long before the rise of farming

This piece of pottery (viewed from the outside and inside) is 12,000 years old. Science/AAAS

While digging in a cave in China, scientists unearthed the most ancient pottery ever found. These pieces of clay pots were 19,000 to 20,000 years old. The cookware was used during an ice age. That’s when giant sheets of ice covered much of Earth.

During this period, people had a hard time finding enough food to survive. Fat, a rich source of energy, was relatively rare. So cooking would have been important, since heat releases more energy from meat and starchy plants like potatoes. That’s the conclusion of the team that found the pottery in Xianrendong Cave. Xiaohong Wu of Peking University in Beijing led the team. As an archaeologist, she studies ancient artifacts to learn how people lived in the past.

What the cave dwellers cooked is unknown. However, clams and snails would be a good guess, says Zhijun Zhao. He’s an archaeologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Plenty of ancient clam and snail shells littered the cave where the pottery was found, he told Science News. Wu and her colleagues say people also might have boiled animal bones to extract grease and marrow; both are rich in fat. These ancient people might even have used the pots to brew alcohol.

Scientists used to think pottery was invented after people started farming and began living in permanent villages. Over the last decade, however, scientists have unearthed pots and other containers in East Asia that are older than farming. The newfound fragments extend the invention of pottery back even further — to 10,000 years before the first farmers.

Chinese pottery appeared long before people tamed animals, lived in permanent settlements or grew crops, T. Douglas Price told Science News. This archaeologist works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

One of many 20,000-year-old pottery fragments found in a Chinese cave. Science/AAAS

Instead, the earliest pottery-makers were people who got food by hunting, fishing and collecting wild plants. These hunter-gatherers probably created the pots in temporary camps that were moved to different locations as the seasons changed, Zhao says.

The oldest pottery comes from East Asia. However, people in other places were also firing clay containers before farming began. For example, people in the Middle East were making simple clay pots 14,500 years ago, notes Anna Belfer-Cohen. She’s an archaeologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

She told Science News that it now appears that “pottery making was introduced in different parts of the world at different times.”

Power Words

ice age A period when ice sheets and slow-moving rivers of ice called glaciers are widespread.

archaeology The study of artifacts and fossils to understand how people lived in the past.

bone marrow A tissue found inside bones. There are two types: Yellow marrow is made up of fat cells, and red marrow is where the body’s red blood cells form.

domestication The process of changing and taming animals and plants so that they are useful to humans.

hunter-gatherer A person who lives in a society where food is hunted, fished and collected in the wild instead of being farmed.

Erin Wayman is the magazine managing editor at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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