Archaeologists at the University of York, leading a large international team, have revealed surprising new insights into why pottery production increased significantly at the end of the last Ice Age – with culture playing a bigger role than expected.
Investigating the use and expansion of hunter-gatherer pottery in Japan, home to some of the earliest pottery in the world, researchers analysed 143 ceramic vessels from Torihama, an ancient site in western Japan.
Pottery is thought to have originated in Japan around 16,000 years ago, but the numbers produced vastly increased 11,500 years ago, coinciding with a shift to a warmer climate. As resurgence in forests took place, an increase in vegetation and animals led to new food sources becoming available.
Previous thinking suggested that pottery use and production increased to accommodate different cooking and storage techniques for the wider variety of foodstuffs available at this time. However, new analysis reveals this not to be the case.
Performing molecular and isotopic analysis of lipids extracted from vessels spanning a 9000 year period, the researchers found that pottery was used largely for cooking marine and freshwater animal species – a routine that remained constant despite climate warming and new resources becoming available.
Finding surprisingly little evidence of plant processing in pottery, or cooking of animals such as deer, researchers found the only significant change to be the different types of fish consumed, such as an increase in freshwater fish.
In a middle-class tomb just east of the Nile River in what was Upper Nubia, a woman offers a glimpse of how two met civilizations met, mingled and a new pharaonic dynasty arose. Her tomb was Egyptian, but she was buried in the Nubian style — placed in a flexed position on her side and resting on a bed. Around her neck she wore amulets of the Egyptian god Bes, the protector of households.
Found in 2015, the Nubian woman is, according to Stuart Tyson Smith, a professor of archaeology and chair of the Department of Anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, a prime example of “cultural entanglement,” the process by which colonizing powers and indigenous people influence one another and change over time.
In a paper accepted for publishing in American Anthropologist, Michele Buzon of Purdue University and Smith explore cultural identity and transformation in the ancient village of Tombos in what is now northern Sudan. “Entanglement and the Formation of Ancient Nubian Napatan State” details the findings from Smith and Buzon’s excavations of cemeteries in Tombos, which became an important colonial hub after the Egyptians conquered Nubia around 1500 BCE.
“You get this really interesting entangled culture blending different elements in really different ways, but also there seems to be a lot of individual choice involved,” Smith explained. “It’s not just a matter of the two cultures mash up and then you get this new hybrid thing that’s consistent. There seems to be a lot of individual choice — whether or not you want a Nubian bed and/or an Egyptian coffin and/or to be wrapped like a mummy or whether or not you want an Egyptian-style amulet and/or Nubian ivory jewelry.”