In the 1960s, and again in the 1990s, fragments of clay pots were found in Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi province in China in the southeast of China. Some experts believed that the pottery fragments could be as old as 20,000 years, but without the technology to prove that was the case, it remained a mystery. Now, research conducted by a team of scientists from Harvard and Peking Universities, published in the academic journal, Science, has discovered conclusively that the clay pots are indeed 20,000 years old, meaning that the pots were made in the Ice Age.
Prior to these findings, it was presumed that pottery dated back no more than 10,000 years ago, which was when man moved from the hunter-gatherer stage to the farming stage. According to a Guardian article, this is not the only finding that shows pottery was in existence in Asia over 15,000 years ago, which now suggests that more research needs to be done into the development of human existence. Research published in 2009 came to the conclusion that pottery found in Hunan province, China was in the region of 18,000 years old.
Burn marks were found on the pottery fragments to prove that they had been used for the purpose of cooking. The creation of pottery earlier than first thought suggests that cooking developed much earlier in Asia than in other parts of the world. Man would have been able to increase energy levels from starchy and fatty foods, which would have been vital to their survival in icy conditions when food resources would have been scarce. Researchers suggest that the pots would have been used for boiling clams and snails, the shells of which were also found in the cave, and also for making alcohol and boiling bones.
The dating of the clay pots was confirmed by the use of radiocarbon dating. 45 samples of bone and charcoal were taken from the layers of soil found above and below the pottery fragments, with the aim of proving that the samples were of the same age as the pottery. Radiocarbon measurements were then taken by labs in both China and the US which, according to ScienceNews.org, “point to initial human use of the cave from about 29,000 to 17,500 years ago.”
An archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was quick to point out that although ceramic techniques existed in Asia so long ago, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t prevalent in other parts of the world too. Eastern Europeans were known to bake clay figurines around 23,000 years ago.
Now, however, the Chinese researchers, from Peking University, are keen to move on with their research and develop a greater understanding of pottery techniques and the link with the development of mankind. As one of the researchers, Wu Xiaohong, put it:
“We are very excited about the findings. The paper is the result of efforts done by generations of scholars. Now we can explore why there was pottery in that particular time, what were the uses of the vessels, and what role they played in the survival of human beings."