Book: Ceramics - Art or Science? Author: Dr. Stan Jones

4. China and Far East (Earliest Culinary Pottery)

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China and Far East (Earliest Culinary Pottery)

Homo Sapiens is omnivorous to the extreme, and able to thrive on pretty well any meat or vegetation, which was a major factor in their successful and rapid colonisation of the entire habitable areas of the world using a hunter/gatherer lifestyle. The direction of development of Homo Sapiens in different parts of the world was hugely dependant on the sources and types of food in his locality.

Until recently the earliest recorded utilitarian or culinary pottery (for storage and cooking) so far discovered was in Japan, but new discoveries illustrate the forever changing archaeological landscape and move the dates further back. It now appears that the earliest culinary pottery could have arisen in China near the coldest part of the last glacial period 21,000 years ago. During this last “Glacial Maximum” the southernmost part of China was covered by an evergreen broad-leafed forest, Central China was a mix of conifers and deciduous forests and the north was very dry desert plains and permafrost. Japan similarly had mixed conifers and deciduous forests in the south and sub-alpine conifers in the north. In the more northerly areas the lifestyle was of the “conventional” hunter/gatherer, but in the mixed forest regions further south the forest hunter/gatherers were able to take up a much more sedentary lifestyle. People learned to exploit the forest resources very well and were able to find some types of local food that could be made available throughout the year. No doubt in time they would have learnt about the basics of plant reproductive cycles and tried to encourage those plants on which they were reliant.

So, the key to sedentary life was an adequate source of food all year round, either available “fresh” or much more likely some having been stored for lean periods such as winter or during droughts. This required robust storage that did not decay and was insect and rodent proof. It also made salt, for preserving meat, a very valuable commodity. Interestingly, pottery seems to have been developed first not where food was very plentiful all year round but in an area where some food storage was necessary to get through these more difficult times.

It could well be that the inhabitants of South China were the first really sedentary people in the world. They also took the other huge step forward in the use of fired clay for cooking and storage pots. Baking and roasting, which had been used from the earliest times, tends to dry and burn food, especially vegetables. Possibly the people needed to boil acorns to make them less toxic and shellfish to make them easier to open, or to boil nuts and wild grasses (particularly those akin to rice), meat from the forest and fish from the rivers to soften and moisten them, and make them storable for longer periods. This would be especially valuable for early weaning of babies on to soft food and feeding toothless older people, permitting them to live longer and pass on their knowledge. Added to this was the previously mentioned need for the insect and vermin proof vessels to store food for lean times. Whatever the drivers, the latest evidence is that these early sedentary people developed the first application of pottery allowing them to boil food on an open fire and to store it for extended periods.

In the East rice and fish predominated from the earliest times, whilst in Europe and West Asia the diet was based on game and wheat (bread). India seems to be the halfway point between the two cultures. Of course these preferences still exist today, which is quite remarkable considering the elapsed time, but indicates the lasting link between cultures and food preferences.

The two factors of sedentary lifestyle and preference for boiling food led to the use of culinary pottery at very early dates. As mentioned above, at present many claim the earliest pottery comes from Japan around 16,000 years ago. However, there is no certainty to such ancient discoveries, and there are others who believe it was used in China even earlier, notably between 22,500 and 24,500 years ago, in the Jianxi province of Southern China. This work was carried out by a team of Japanese archaeologists led by Yasouda using varve analysis (the study of layers of deposits). One has to exercise great caution regarding dating, as the Carbon Fourteen (C14) dating method, using associated carboniferous matter, has to be adjusted to align with other dating information. At a date of 20,000 years ago this adds some 3-4,000 years. This is likely to be due to variable levels of CO2 in the atmosphere over this long period modifying the calibration of the C14 technique.

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