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April 12th, 2013

Lessons from the ancients—engineered ceramic materials and climate change

Published on April 12th, 2013 | By: Eileen De Guire

Ancient cultures used innovative ceramic pots as part of their adaption to severe climate change. What role will engineered ceramic materials have in addressing today’s climate and pollution challenges? Credit: Wikimedia.

Climate change is in the news frequently these days. Researchers are investigating ways that new anthropogenic activity can balance or mitigate existing or future anthropogenic activities that contribute to pollution and climate issues. Examples include clean energy, green manufacturing, sustainability, design for recyclability, etc.

While social behavior will certainly be involved, too, my sense is that we plan to engineer our way out of climate trouble.

Ancient humankind was forced to react to severe climate change, too, most notably in the Late Pleistocene era when the most recent ice age or period of glaciation occurred. The Pleistocene era covers the time span from 2.6 million to 11,700 years before present (an interesting definition of time worth looking up).

Today we distinguish between pottery as an art form as distinct from technical ceramics for engineered applications. However, in ancient times, pottery was the engineered innovation that met the needs of the contemporary people. “Pottery was a hunter-gatherer innovation that first emerged in East Asia between 20,000 and 12,000 calibrated years before present,” write the authors in the abstract of a new letter in Nature.

Ceramic pottery gives anthropologists and archaeologists a way to study the lives and influences of ancient peoples. Last summer, for example, we reported on the discovery in China of the oldest known pottery that provides solid evidence of pottery being used by hunter-gatherer societies long before agrarian lifestyles were established.

The Nature letter reports on how an ancient society inhabiting the Japanese islands used pottery in the Late Pleistocene era as severe climate changes influenced their lifestyles. The timeframe known as the Jōmon period spanned from about 14,000 BC to 300 BC and overlapped with the ice age climate change that characterized the Late Pleistocene era. The region’s hunter-gatherer culture was fairly complex and produced a plethora of pottery for practical and ceremonial uses.

Previously, the authors write, it was thought that ceramic pottery provided hunter-gatherers with “attractive new strategies for processing and consuming foodstuffs.” The interdisciplinary team from the UK, Japan, the Netherlands, and Sweden used modern chemical analysis tools to study the char residue in Jōmon pottery and found lipids that are “unequivocally derived from processing freshwater and marine organisms.” A study of 101 char deposits shows that “Productive aquatic ecotones were heavily exploited by late glacial foragers.” In other words, the ancient Japanese ate a lot of fish.

In a press release, Oliver Craig from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, UK, describes the use of pottery by a foraging society as a “revolutionary new strategy for the processing of marine and freshwater fish, but perhaps most interesting is that this fundamental adaptation emerged over a period of severe climate change.” He speculates that the abundance of food in the ecotone “provided the initial impetus for an investment in producing ceramic containers…”

While advanced ceramics are currently being developed and used to help solve pollution and climate challenges, what are the new applications in which ceramic materials might become a “revolutionary new strategy” and worthy of investment to meet today’s climate challenges?


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