Manchester Metropolitan University

Monday, 15th April 2013

Pottery reveals Ice Age taste for fish

Chemist aids team of archaeologists

Image for Pottery reveals Ice Age taste for fish

Jomon pot from Kubodera-minami, Niigata prefecture c. 15,000 years old (Tomamchi City Museum)

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have found that some of the world’s oldest ceramic pots still contain residues of the food that was cooked in them.

It is helps provide evidence of why hunter gatherer societies first began making pottery.

Scientists from the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and Japan carried out chemical analysis of food residues in pottery up to 15,000 years old from the late glacial period, the oldest pottery so far investigated and the first study to directly address the often posed question “why humans made pots?”

The research is published in Nature.

Chemical analysis

The research team was able to determine the use of a range of hunter-gatherer “Jōmon” ceramic vessels through chemical analysis of organic compounds extracted from charred surface deposits.

The samples analysed are some of the earliest found in Japan, a country recognised to be one of the first centres for ceramic innovation, and date to the end of the Late Pleistocene - a time when humans were adjusting to changing climates and new environments.

Dr Leon Clarke, Lecturer in Environmental Analytical Chemistry in the School of Science and the Environment created a stable-isotope ratio dataset which underpinned the research, which was led by archaeologists at the University of York.

Until quite recently ceramic container technologies have been associated with the arrival of farming, but we now know they were a much earlier hunter-gatherer adaptation.

Fish meals

The researchers recovered diagnostic lipids from the charred surface deposits of the pottery with most of the compounds deriving from the processing of freshwater or marine organisms. Stable isotope data support the lipid evidence, and suggest that the majority of the 101 charred deposits, analysed from across Japan, were derived from high trophic level aquatic foods – fish.

Dr Oliver Craig, Director of the BioArCh research centre at York, said: “The reliability and high abundance of food along shorelines and river-banks may well have provided the initial impetus for an investment in producing ceramic containers, perhaps to make the most of seasonal gluts or as part of elaborate celebratory feasts and could be linked to a reduction in mobility.

“This study demonstrates that it is possible to analyse organic residues from some of the world’s earliest ceramic vessels. It opens the way for further study of hunter-gatherer pottery from later periods to clarify the development of what was a revolutionary technology.”

The study also involved researchers from Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford; School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool; Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen; Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Stockholm University; The Archaeological Research Laboratory, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University and Arctic Centre, University of Groningen, Netherlands; and Niigata Prefectural Museum of History, Niigata; Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto and Wakasa History and Folklore Museum, Fukui, in Japan.

- The paper: ‘Earliest evidence for the use of pottery’ is published in Nature.

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