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Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China

Science  29 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6089, pp. 1696-1700
DOI: 10.1126/science.1218643

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Pots and Crocks

The invention of pottery allowed for more secure storage of food than was provided by baskets or hide pouches, and the vessels could also be used in cooking. The earliest pottery has been thought to have appeared in China and Japan ∼18,000 years ago, several thousands of years before the advent of agriculture. Wu et al. (p. 1696); see the Perspective by Shelach) have now dated broken pieces of pottery from a cave in China, the earliest of which date to ∼20,000 years ago, the time of the Last Glacial Maximum. Scorch marks on many pieces imply that the pottery was used in cooking.

Abstract

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.

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