Oldest pottery in the world found in China

Pottery fragments discovered in Xianrendong Cave in south China’s Jiangxi Province have been radiocarbon dated to 19,000-20,000 years ago making them the oldest pottery ever discovered. Over the past 10 years, ancient pottery finds in East Asia have upended the notion that ceramics were invented around the time humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture, 10,000 or so years ago. This particular discovery is fully 2,000 to 3,000 years older than previous examples.

Wu, Bar-Yosef and colleagues gathered 45 samples of bone and charcoal from previously excavated soil layers at Xianrendong Cave. Radiocarbon measurements of bone and charcoal generated by three labs — one in China and two in the United States — point to initial human use of the cave from about 29,000 to 17,500 years ago. Xianrendong Cave pottery contains burn marks from being placed over fires and is 2,000 to 3,000 years older than pottery from another Chinese cave, which had previously held the age record. […]

“Chinese pottery appeared long before animal domestication and has no obvious connection to the origins of agriculture or sedentary living,” remarks archaeologist T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

The people who used these vessels were nomadic hunters and foragers. Their ceramics were crudely made concave pots and bowls about 8 inches in diameter which were fired poorly and thus eminently breakable. The fragments discovered in Xianrendong Cave have scorch marks and soot on the outer surfaces which means the pots weren’t used for storage but for baking, boiling and steaming food. The layers in which the pottery fragments were discovered also contained many clam and snail shells; clay-baked shellfish and escargot seem to have been on the menu.

It takes considerable environmental pressure on a society to engender this kind of dramatic change. In the case of the hunter-gatherers in Xianrendong 20,000 years ago, the pressure could have come from the ice age. The Last Glacial Maximum, the period when ice sheets were at their largest, ended between 19,000 and 20,000 years ago. Plants and animals would have been hard to come by, so people would have needed to maximize their caloric intake by any means possible. Cooking food is an effective means of increasing the nutritional value of starchy plants and meat.

Ceramics were made continuously in China (particularly south China) from that point forward, even though it would be another 10 millennia or so before the cultivation of plants arrived in the area.

Xianrendong Cave pottery fragments, 19,000-20,000 years old Xianrendong Cave pottery fragment

5 thoughts on “Oldest pottery in the world found in China

  1. sure pottery could have been used to store preserved meats or vegetables.


    1. If you use your cooking vessels for storage, then they are not available to you when you need to cook. The scorch marks on these pots suggest they were used for cooking. It’s unlikely that they were used for both purposes,. just as today you don’t use your pots to store pantry goods.

  2. Good Day,

    Thank you for your work on this blog, I have enjoyed it much. I would challenge this assertion that you would not use your cooking vessels for storage. I am often surprise at how Historians and Archaeologist, (of a certain type,) will make definitive statements about the practices of Neolithic man, when all they know is based on theories of what they find, not observe or necessarily practice themselves. I have work as an historical reenactor and indigenous life skill instructor both, and can tell you that it is more than plausible that ancient humans cooked in a pot, and then stored the contents in the ground for latter use, (a canning process for food storage still in practice today.) This is a practice I was taught by elders, and is practice around the world still today.

    Respectfully Submitted,


  3. I am an NYC elementary school teacher working on an artifact kit students to use. Artifacts which were found on a site in Brooklyn will be used in the classroom along with information and background sheets.
    Although the yellowware bowl that was found on the site was late 19 century, I think it would be interesting that students connect to this oldest artifact found in China.

    I am asking your permission to use the photo of the ancient pottery. It would be strictly non-commercial, educational purposes only.
    I would cite your website with the images.

    This would be a great addition to my research.
    Thank you in advance,
    Debra Sukupa
    (Please respond as soon as you can)

  4. Not only could the pots have plausobly been used for both storage and for cooking, but one other mistake in this entry:

    Cooking foods, particuarly vegetables, DECREASES the caloric value and nutrition. Cooking meats helps with digestion, as humans aren’t all that great at digesting meats, since we are on ivores and not strict carnivores. But there is no nutritional advantage to cooking veggies, except for taste and texture. And likely, ancient man would not have actually know that.

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