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Study Offers Insights On Why Humans Produce More Pottery At End Of Last Ice Age

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Why did humans invent pottery? Archeologists have dug deeper into why pottery production significantly increased at the end of the last Ice Age, with culture appearing to have a bigger-than-expected role.

A large international team led by University of York researchers analyzed 143 ceramic vessels from Torihama, an ancient western Japan site, to investigate the use and growth of hunter-gatherer pottery in Japan.

Pottery is believed to have originated in the country — which boasts some of the earliest works around the world — about 16,000 years ago. The numbers produced in the practice, however, substantially climbed 11,500 years ago, coinciding with a period of warming.

Forestation led to the availability of new food sources, with pottery perceived to be part of the newfound cooking and storage techniques at that time. The research, however, attributed the uptick in pottery production to cultural factors, not really environmental ones.

The team subjected the extracted lipids from the 9,000-year-old pots to molecular and isotopic analysis, a technique that will determine the types of food cooked and stored. Based on the results, the foods being prepared from and stored in pottery were relatively stable - human lived mostly on freshwater and marine animals like fish and shellfish, even when the climate warmed.

"Interestingly, the reason seems to be little to do with subsistence and more to do with the adoption of a cultural tradition," explains Dr. Oliver Craig, citing the culture of celebration and competitive feasting, particularly involving the cooking and serving of fish and shellfish.

Among foragers in East Asia, he added, this pottery tradition endured for long generations as a reliable method to harness "a sustainable food in an uncertain and changing world," amid a wide-scale climate change striking by the end of the last Ice Age.

For the researchers, their findings herald a new stage on East Asian ceramic research, emphasizing the need for investigating more pottery records and their rich, longstanding history.

The findings were published in the journal PNAS.

Last year, a separate study of Neolithic pottery shards showed researchers last year how Stone Age farmers may have become the first beekeepers 9,000 years ago. Chemical evidence of beeswax revealed that farmers of that time collected and used bounties from bees at that time, close to the dawn of agriculture.

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