Early pottery use in North Eastern North America

Dates: 
2011-2013

Studying how pottery production in Northeastern North America initially developed 3000 years ago, this project has demonstrated that the increasing use of pottery in that region was not an adaptive response to increased reliance on specific kinds of wild foodstuffs, as previously thought.

Instead, new analysis on pottery vessels indicates that social factors triggered the innovation of pottery, which was principally used to process marine and freshwater fish, and produce fish oil. This suggests that abundant aquatic resources encouraged investment in the production of pottery, as fish became a valued exchange commodity, which was prepared, cooked and consumed in hunter-gatherer group feasts.

Reconstructed Vinette I vessel from the Peace Bridge site, Ontario (courtesy of Archaeological Services Inc).

Conducting organic residue analysis on approximately 133 vessels from 33 early pottery sites in Northeastern North America, measurements of bulk carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes, compound-specific carbon isotopes, and the identification of biomarkers, notably aquatic lipids were undertaken. The results demonstrated a high preponderance of aquatic organisms in the majority of samples consistent with the cooking of marine and freshwater foods and the preparation and storage of fish oil.

These early pottery sites are now thought to have been important seasonal meeting points for hunter-gatherer groups, drawing communities together and, especially in periods of high abundance, promoting the cooperative harvesting of aquatic resources and new social contexts for the cooking and consumption of fish. Combined with similar results obtained in different parts of the world, for example Japan, Northern Europe or Alaska, this study points to a close association between aquatic resources and the innovation of pottery by hunter-gatherer societies. It also highlights once again the incredible potential of organic residue analysis to directly address the often posed question - Why humans initially made pottery?

About

The Ceramic Residues to the economic and social context of early pottery use in North Eastern North America project was undertaken by Karine Taché under the supervision of Oliver Craig. It was carried out between 2011 and 2013.

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