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World's Oldest Pottery?

2 June 2009 (All day)
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Hunan Provincial Museum, * 2006

Piecing pottery's past. A vessel similar to this one, now in Hunan Provincial Museum, may be the oldest pottery yet found.

China gave the world porcelain. And now it appears that the country also gave us our first pottery. A team of Israeli, Chinese, and American scholars says it has found ceramic remains in a cave in China's Hunan province that are from 15,400 to 18,300 years old. That's at least 1000 years earlier than other pottery fragments from the same region, which were previously thought to be the oldest in the world.

Bits of pottery nearly as old from Hunan caves had been found earlier, but some archaeologists suspected that the samples, tested using radiocarbon dating, were contaminated with a mineral called calcite, which was potentially older than the pottery itself.

To ensure that the new pottery fragments were dated accurately, team members led by Elisabetta Boaretto of Israel's Bar Ilan University chose only the best preserved fragments of bone and charcoal associated with the pottery (radiocarbon dating requires testing of organic material) from a site known as Yuchanyan Cave, located in China's Yangzi River basin. They screened out those potentially contaminated with the calcite. The team obtained a spread of dates stretching back more than 18,000 years.

The cave also offers a clear picture of what these late Paleolithic foragers ate. Remains of boar, birds, tortoise, fish, deer, and small mammals are evident, as well as rice--though whether it is wild or domesticated is not clear because rice is thought not to have been domesticated until thousands of years later.

The team says the find, reported online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, strengthens the view that the Yangzi and its tributaries served as an important center of early Holocene life. But why pottery emerged here so early--in contrast with southwest Asia, where plant domestication, bronzemaking, and other technologies took hold much earlier--remains a mystery.

Other scholars say they're convinced by the new dating. "I like what they did; they really used the gold standard in their methodology," says Gary Crawford, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto in Canada. Crawford says that the critical issue now is whether the technology of potterymaking spread from the Yangzi to Japan, where researchers have found vessels nearly as old as those in China. Some researchers believe that pottery originated in either Japan or China and then diffused to the other. Such a conclusion would be "premature," notes Crawford. But Boaretto and her colleagues "certainly are implying that could be the case," he says.

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