Ancient Pot Shards Suggest Ceramics First Used 20,000 Years Ago

Posted June 28th, 2012 at 2:15 pm (UTC-5)
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People began making ceramic pottery 20,000 years ago about 2000 years earlier than previously thought — according to a new analysis of ancient Chinese pot shards. The study, published in the journal Science, suggests that the craft of pottery predates farming by 10,000 years. And it proposes that fired ceramic containers were being used during the peak of the last ice age when our ancestors were still primarily hunter-gatherers.

In recent years, archeologists have been revising the history of pottery, letting go of a long-held belief that it arose alongside agriculture. In its place, new questions have perplexed archeologists. When exactly did pottery first appear? And why did it appear only among some populations?

Seeking answers, an international team of scientists gathered thick human bone fragments found alongside coil pot shards in Xianrendong Cave, a popular excavation site in China's Jiangxi Province. Radiocarbon dating showed the bones to be 19,000 to 20,000 years old. The researchers concluded that the pottery shards are equally ancient, making them 2,000 years older than any other pottery found previously.

Scorch marks on the exterior of the shards suggest that they were used for cooking. Archeologist Gideon Shelach, in an accompanying perspective article in Science, speculates that during the ice age, when resources became more scarce, people were forced to develop better ways of collecting, processing and storing food.