These beautiful ceramic roasters by artist Robbie Lobell continue an ancient tradition of using pottery for cooking. Lobell intends for her roasters to be used, “I make my flameware pots to encourage the ideas of using handmade objects to prepare and present locally grown vegetables, fruits and meats from our gardens, barnyards and nearby farms.” Her fellow potters from 20,000 years ago may have had similar motivations, but changed the course of human history, too. Credit: Robbie Lobell.

Our nation’s annual Independence Day holiday is next Wednesday, and perhaps, like me, you are thinking about holiday get-togethers and what to bring to the neighborhood potluck. Once that is decided, the next question is what container to use.

Apparently, what pot to bring to the potluck is a much older question than previously thought.

A new paper in Science reports on the discovery that ancient pottery found in the Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi Province in China date back about 20,000 to 19,000 years. This is 2,000 to 3,000 years earlier than other pottery fragments from East Asia and other locations.

The international research team of researchers from Peking University, Boston University, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen and Harvard University used radiocarbon measurements to date fragments of a pot that is estimated to have once been about 20 centimeters tall and 15-25 centimeters wide.

In our modern perspective, we do not think of pottery as an engineered material, but for our cave-dwelling ancestors, it was. The opening sentence of the paper explains.

Pottery making—the manufacture of fired, ceramic container forms—differs considerably from the baked clay figurines or small objects known from the Upper Paleolithic period in its technological demands and in its significance both in subsistence activities, including food storage, processing, and cooking, and in social interactions.

Previously, it had been thought that pottery was an innovation of the agrarian lifestyle, but the authors dispel that notion.

Pottery making introduces a fundamental shift in human dietary history, and Xianrendong demonstrates that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for some 10,000 years before they became sedentary or began cultivating plants. The age for pottery production at Xianrendong of ~20,000 years ago coincides with the peak period of the last ice age, when there was a decrease in the productivity of regional food resources. When used for cooking, pottery allows energy gains from starch-rich food as well as meat, and scorch and soot marks on sherd exterior surfaces indicate that Xianrendong pottery likely was used for cooking.

The exact function of this ancient pottery is unknown, but the authors speculate that it may have been used to extract marrow and grease, or in ways that later hunter-gatherer societies used pottery, for example, for food preparation and storage and alcohol brewing.

The development of ancient pottery may have been a turning point in the evolution of our modern lifestyles. The article concludes,

Thus, the early invention of pottery may have played a key role in human demographic and social adaptations to climate change in East Asia, leading to sedentism, and eventually to the emergence of wild rice cultivation during the early Holocene.

In a BBC News article, Hebrew University professor, Gideon Shelach, suggests there may have been a social driver, too. “People were gathering together in larger groups and you needed social activities to mitigate against increased tensions,” he said in the article, and “Maybe those potteries were used to brew alcohol.”

Something to think about as you bake your macaroni and cheese casserole and pick up a carton of Sam Adams on your way to the picnic this week.

The paper is “Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China,” Wu, et al., Science (doi: 10.1126/science.1218643)