The innovation and development of pottery in East Asia

Dates: 
2014-2017

Some of the world's earliest pottery comes from East Asia. What caused this innovation of ceramics?

The invention of ceramic cooking vessels represents one of the most significant innovations in human history, and had a profound impact on the subsequent development of human culinary behaviour. The ability to process food in pots fundamentally altered human diets and consumption practices with broad impacts on health, subsistence strategies and social practices.

Yet the reasons why pottery emerged are still poorly understood. Once linked exclusively to the development of farming and settled life-ways, it is becoming increasingly clear that the origins of pottery are instead bound-up in a complex process of innovation, which at its limit in East Asia, extends back to the end of the end of the Pleistocene.

Jōmon Japanese Pottery

The first ceramic containers must have provided prehistoric hunter-gatherers with attractive new strategies for processing and consuming foodstuffs, but virtually nothing is known of how early pots were used. It is also unclear why pottery was innovated at this particular juncture in prehistory and in East Asia, much earlier than other parts of the world. To find out more about related projects and research on early pottery around the world, see our project quick links.

Focusing on the Japanese archipelago, one of the earliest and best studied centres for the innovation of ceramic containers, this project is undertaking the first systematic study of the function of early pottery through the chemical and isotopic analysis of fats, oils and waxes (lipids) and microscopic identification of plant microfossils embedded in charred residues (food crusts). Recent work by the team has clearly demonstrated that interpretable food derived lipids and plant microfossils survive in early Japanese pottery from the earliest ‘Incipient’ phases (for example Craig et al. 2013, see our publications tab). We are now greatly expanding the period coverage, number of samples and geographical scope of the research to tackle key questions relating to the early evolution of ceramic technology. The early pottery sequences we have selected benefit from extensive dating (many samples have been directly radiocarbon dated) and subjected to detailed typological and technological investigations by our Japanese collaborators. However, despite a long history of intensive study of Jōmon pottery, very little lipid residue analysis has so far been undertaken, allowing deployment of established methods to a novel context.

About

The project is an international collaboration including researchers from Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

Experimental pottery

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