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.