The oldest pottery discovered

ResearchBlogging.orgIn our modern world of metal technology and artificial plastics it’s easy to forget the importance of ceramics. However, there was a time when pottery was the only way to make vessels for cooking food or storing it. Doing so would’ve opened up a raft of new options for prehistoric people, such as using advanced cooking techniques to make previously inedible resources palatable. Alternatively by storing food they could’ve made lean times less harsh enabling larger populations or making previously inhospitable locations habitable.

The Dolni Vestonice ceramic figurine

However ceramics weren’t always utilised for such utilitarian purposes. The first instances of this technology come from a set of Eastern European sites (Dolni Vestonice, Pavlov and Piredmosti) which were inhabited by people 28-24,000 years BP. These individuals produced the Gravettian industry which included the famous Venus figurines. One such figurine, made from ceramics, is the earliest example of the technology we have.

Yet the Dolni Vestonice figurine is only one of over 10,000 pieces of ceramics recovered from these sites, most of the other pieces are mere fragments. Experimental archaeology has shown that such framentation would occur if the pieces exploded whilst being fired in the kiln but getting the poor quality loess the Gravettian people were using for clay to explode requires quite a bit of effort. This suggests that these explosions were intentional rather than accidents and they were deliberately blowing stuff up.

Whilst that is interesting in its own right it is still several steps removed from true “pottery.” This ceramic technology wasn’t advanced enough to produce the more utilitarian artefacts. Besides, they aren’t trying to do anything productive with it anyway, just exploding it. Whilst the Venus figurine might have been useful as a way of exchanging information it still isn’t in the same league as, say, a jug.

Dolni Vestonci ceramics

The intact ceramics recovered from the Eastern European sites; (a) the Venus figurine, (b) a bear and (c) a lions head. The rest of the 10,000+ pieces were fragments

For the first vessels you have to travel closer to the present and around the world. They occur in Asia – typically China – and are dated to 16-14,000 years ago. The geological and chronological disconnect from the Eastern European pottery suggests that this is an independent invention and not the result of refining the methods which produced the famous “bangers” at Dolni Vestonice.

However, new dating of Chinese pottery sherds pushes back the invention of pottery by 3/4,000 years. The paper, published in Science , reports the radiocarbon dates obtained from Xianrendong cave where pottery was found in 1993. The dates indicate that this pottery is actually between 20,867 (+/- 318) to 19,283 (+/- 283) years BP.

Xianrendong sherds

Some of the sherds recovered from Xianrendong cave. Note the scratches, indicating they were smoothed by grass or a similar material.

Back in 1993 when Xianrendong cave was first excavated the team found 282 sherds of pottery. Whilst these finds were interesting, prompting further excavations in 1995 and the early 2000s, reliable dating of the cave was not possible. As such the information gathered from these sherds was of limited use since it could not really be put in a chronological framework. Whilst the technology did indicate they were produced in the Late Pleistocene the scientists couldn’t get more specific than that.

Nonetheless, they continued to analyse their finds and found several interesting things, including that these sherds came from curved vessels and some were smoothed with grass. Further, burning on one side indicates that these vessels were probably used for cooking. However, with the aforementioned lack of chronological context places severe limits on the usefulness of these interesting findings.

So in 2009 they returned to the cave and re-opened the two trenches they had first dug way back in 1993 in an effort to gather samples for radiocarbon dating, better study the stratigraphy of the site and perhaps even find some more pottery. Whilst they failed in the latter, recovering no new pottery from their trenches, they certainly succeeded with the former and gained a deep insight into the excavated trenches (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Stratigraphy of Xianrendong cave

One of the recently excavated trenches

They recovered 69 new samples of bone to radiocarbon date and also ran an analysis on older samples from previous excavations which gave them a grand total of 99 samples for their analysis. This is a delightfully large number that helps ensures they get reliable results, a nice change from the limited sample size from other excavations I’ve complained about before.

Whilst this is one of the studies greatest strengths it is also one of their weakest points. It can be easy to contaminate samples and given 30 of them had been out of the ground for many years (and those which aren’t could’ve been disturbed by previous excavations, recall they re-opened previously dug trenches) there remains a real potential for such contamination.

However, the finds were taken in situ  and they were sure to only use samples large enough that wouldn’t have been disturbed by the burrowing insects they found evidence of at the site. Methodological the researchers are sound and the reliability of their data is is cemented by the fact that most of their results are consistent with one another, suggesting they are indeed reliable. The odds that most of their samples could all have been contaminated to the same degree is very unlikely.

Their results show that the earliest pottery containing layer dates to between 20,867 (+/- 318) and 19,283 (+/- 283) years BP. This makes the pottery recovered from those layers the oldest pottery in the world.

Radiocarbon dates oldest pottery

The radiocarbon dates for the oldest strata. Left column is sample type, middle uncalibrated date, right calibrated date. Note how only the last appears to be anomalous

These finds are particularly interesting because they place the earliest pottery towards the end of the last glacial maximum (“ice age”). During this period humans encountered a range of new phenomena, perhaps one of these is the driving force behind the invention of pottery.

Reconstruction of the first pot

Reconstruction of the first pot

Might pottery have been a a response to the harsh environment, which was forcing them to innovate new technologies? Alternatively might people clumping together in the remaining habitable refugia create the right demographic conditions for invention (denser populations are associated with more new ideas)? The latter is particularly interesting since the advent of farming the Middle East probably also produced a similar demographic shift, perhaps explaining why pottery in that area appears shortly after domestication does.

By pushing the date for the earliest pottery back to the last glacial maximum this find has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the context surrounding the advent of pottery. Whilst the dating isn’t perfect the flaws don’t appear to impact on the reliability of the study and so this remains an exciting find.

Vandiver PB, Soffer O, Klima B, & Svoboda J (1989). The origins of ceramic technology at dolni vecaronstonice, czechoslovakia. Science (New York, N.Y.), 246 (4933), 1002-8 PMID: 17806391
Xiaohong Wu, Chi Zhang, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, Yan Pan, Trina Arpin, Ofer Bar-Yosef (2012). Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China Science, 336, 1696-1700 DOI: 10.1126/science.1218643

7 thoughts on “The oldest pottery discovered

  1. This is awesome. I’m fascinated by anything older than 6,000 years (which I used to believe was the age of the Earth), because I’m like, “Hey, this means that this stuff was 13 millenniums old when God said ‘Let there be light!'”

    I’m also really interested in the dating methods, because of all the propaganda I heard about why carbon dating isn’t accurate. So thanks.

    • Nothing makes young earth creationism seem more silly than science just doing science. It’s just so divorced from what we discover on a daily basis that it gets to the point where you almost forget that there are people who believe the world is young. And then when you’re reminded it seems so absurd you can’t help but laugh.

      I’m interested as to how a real dating methods contrast with the perception creationists like to promote. Whilst I was a Christian (and a creationist) at one point I never consumed any of their literature so never had my view of the world distorted. Looking over my discussion of the dating and the results presented (and other such discussion/results you’ve seen), how do they differ from what you might have expected given that propaganda you heard?

      • Creationists would just have said that carbon dating is unreliable. There was a common creationist anecdote about a rock that was somehow “known” to be young (as in a hundred years or something. Is there even such thing as a young rock?) being dated to millions of years by carbon dating.

        Therefore carbon dating has been wrong; therefore carbon dating is never reliable. QED.

        I’m still getting my head around the proper response to creationists who argue that rates of radioactive decay may have changed over time. From what I can tell, we can triangulate with other dating methods, and also the change in rate necessary for their worldview is simply preposterous.

        • Dating techniques are applicable to certain circumstances. By applying them to other situations you’ll get anomalous results which are often trumpeted as proof that the methods are generally inaccurate. This logic is naturally false and a good rule of thumb is to ask whether you’ve ever seen a scientist use the method examined in that particular situation before and claimed it as accurate. The odds are either the answer is no or the anomaly is just invented (see here).

          I’m no physicist, which means I have to rely on others to respond to discussion of decay rates. One of the better arguments I’ve heard is that radioactive decay can be derived from first principles. For the rate of decay to change so too would those first principles. However they influence different rates of decay differently so changing them to make one method line up with a young earth would make the others not line up. The only earth that all the rates will agree upon is an old one.

  2. There’s a page at that summarises the arguments against a variation in radioactive decay rates:

    The one that I like the most is that the if the observed amount of decay had occurred in the last 6k years it would melted the earth.

    Interestingly, since the rate of decay is determined by physical constants and physical constants are supposed to be constant, any variation is big news. An astronomical team has inferred a small variation in the “fine structure constant” by looking at the light from quasars in different directions. The variation they got is 6 ppm in 10 billion years. This won’t affect any radio carbon dates but is big news in theoretical physics if correct. It may turn out to be an artifact but the result has held up for a few years. The naturally occurring Oklo reator that was running a couple of billion years ago provides a limit on the variation of the constant; if it had been more that a tiny bit different the reactor wouldn’t have worked or would have produced different decay products. The decay products are about what you’d get today, although an investigation, quoted in Wikipedia, found a tiny change. As physics this is interesting, but pretty shadowy given the shortage of test points, but for dating purposes over anthropological or even biological time scales we can say the constancy of decay is confirmed to a very high degree of accuracy.

  3. Those who express concern about radiocarbon samples being contaminated after their recovery have a reasonable basis for such concerns, but that concern is one that was addressed several decades ago. In 1990 the American National Science Foundation gave a generous grant to the NSF Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Tucson, to explore that very question. The specific concern that sparked the research was the challenge of dating material found in an ethnographic context, that is; not an old object excavated from an undisturbed archaeological site, but an object that had continued to be used in a culture, leaving it exposed to contamination with materials containing more modern carbon, but also with contaminants that contained ancient carbon. As two simple examples; butters or animal fats could contaminate a sample with more modern carbon, while tar or oil would contain, and contaminate a sample with, carbon that was quite ancient.

    Before that work was finished a total of five radiocarbon laboratories around the world had joined in the investigation. While their work was published, I think it deserves more publicity than it got at the time. The simple answer is that (a) contamination of a porous sample can skew a radiocarbon test result, but (b) it is relatively easy, and widely understood that radiocarbon sample preparation needs to include careful cleaning before the carbon is extracted for testing. I have seen a number of images of textile samples that were made prior to sample preparation, and after. The stringency of the preparation is obvious.

    The amount of the unstable Carbon-14 element in the atmosphere varies somewhat, from historic year-to-year and decade to decade, in response to changes in the surface of the sun over time. Those differences have been addressed by a stunningly painstaking study at the University of Washington that involved the dating of the individual yearly tree-rings in an ancient tree stump that had lived for thousands of years. Each ring reflected the physical environment in the year which it had grown, giving a remarkable record of the variations in C-14 from year-to-year. What is clear from that enormous body of data is that while there are variations in C-14 in the atmosphere, that the range of such variation is not significant enough to cast doubt on the test method.

    It would be interesting to know what pre-test cleaning was done to the samples found in China, but if samples taken directly from an ancient strata appear to be dating the same as samples removed and stored earlier, that would appear to argue for those earlier excavated samples having been carefully handled and kept from contamination.

    I can’t comment intelligently on the idea that the earth was formed six-thousand years ago. I wasn’t there. But if that were true, one would need to believe that enormous efforts were made, as part of that creation process, to craft a marvelously complicated and misleading body of evidence that the earth was Billions of years old. Why a supreme being would engage in such a mind-bendingly complicated effort is difficult to explain.

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