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.
Long ago, in a field far away…
Impressions of cockroach egg cases from 4,300 year old Japanese potsherds (broken pottery fragments) have been found in southern Japan. X-ray, computed tomography (CT) and scanning electron microscopy were used to image the impressions and reveal aspects about ancient Japanese life in this latest archeological survey from Kumamoto University.
These are impressions you are looking for.
To archeologists, ancient earthenware is almost always packed full of treasure. This may seem logical since the pots may have held water, food or other historically valuable items. This time, however, the “treasure” was found not in the pot, but inside the pottery itself.
“Countless vacant holes on the surface of potsherds had been all but ignored until about 25 years ago,” said Professor Hiroki Obata, researcher of archeology from Kumamoto University, Japan. “Since then, however, the meaning and importance of these holes has become well understood. They can be the impression of seeds, nuts, insects or shells.”
From the cavities left by soybeans or adzuki beans which were mixed in the pottery during creation, it is possible to more correctly estimate the beginning of cultivation in the district. Impressions are an important key to understanding the lifestyle of those who lived in a particular area during a particular period. Furthermore, with a quantitative survey of the impressions, it is possible to extrapolate the range of the propagation and cultivation of the plants.
Professor Obata’s group examined impressions on the surface and from the inside of the potsherds from the Odake shell mound site in Toyama Prefecture, which contains artifacts from the early Jomon Period of Japan (5,300 – 3,500 BC). Using X-ray, CT and scanning electron microscopy they found more than 500 impressions, even though only 66 could be visually confirmed, of Egoma Perilla frutescens var. frutescens) seed related imprints on the surface. The impressions within the potsherds were unique to the period making them easily distinguishable from potsherds that had been created at another time.