Intensified fishing at the end of the last Ice Age was closely linked with the rise of ceramic production, it has been revealed.
In one of the largest ceramic studies ever undertaken, scientists closely examined over 800 pottery vessels. The AHRC-funded research focused mainly on ceramics from Japan, as it is widely recognised as one of the world’s earliest centres for ceramic innovation.
Examined over a course of three years by researchers from Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and the University of York’s BioArCh, the findings indicate that ceramics were used by our gatherer-hunter ancestors to initially store and process fish. As fishing techniques evolved and intensified, the range extended to include shellfish, freshwater and marine fish and even mammals.
Until recently, ceramic vessels were associated with the arrival of farming. This study, however, debunks that theory. We now know that pottery was a much earlier gatherer-hunter innovation, and was used for the consumption of fish.
Professor Oliver Craig, from the Department of Archaeology and Director of the BioArCh research centre at York, who led the study, said: “Our results demonstrate that pottery had a strong association with the processing of fish, irrespective of the ecological setting.”
Some of the pottery dates from the end of the Late Pleistocene period: a time when our ancestors were navigating glacial conditions. Other ceramics included in the study are from the post-glacial period, when the climate reached a level close to our current temperature, allowing pottery to be produced in a much greater quantity.
Craig continues: “Contrary to expectations, this association remained stable even after the onset of warming, including in more southerly areas, where expanding forests provided new opportunities for hunting and gathering.
“The results indicate that a broad array of fish was processed in the pottery after the end of the last Ice Age, corresponding to a period when hunter-gatherers began to settle in one place for longer periods and develop more intensive fishing strategies.
“We suggest this marks a significant change in the role of pottery of hunter-gatherers, corresponding massively increased volume of production, greater variation in forms and sizes and the onset of shellfish exploitation.”
Researchers used advanced technologies to recover diagnostic lipids from the charred surface deposits of the vessels. Most of the compounds derive from the processing of freshwater or marine organisms. Because of findings like this, we now know that ceramics played a key role in the ways pre-historic gatherer-hunters consumed fish.
Lead author, Dr Alex Lucquin, from BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, said: “Thanks to the exceptional preservation of traces of animal fat, we now know that pottery changed from a rare and special object to an every-day tool for preparing fish.
“I think that our study not only reveals the subsistence of the ancient Jomon people of Japan but also its resilience to a dramatic change in climate.”
Dr Simon Kaner, from the University of East Anglia, who was also involved in the study, added: “The research highlights the benefits of this kind of international collaboration for unlocking some of the big questions about the human past, and the potential of engaging with established research networks as created by the Sainsbury Institute over the years.”