Does China Really Have the World’s Earliest Pottery?

During the last few days, there has been a tremendous amount of buzz about “China” having the earliest pottery, how this is going to “rewrite human history”, and so forth. Please!

In recent times, there has been a seesawing battle back and forth between China and Japan over this “first” in human history. It seems to be nip and tuck, so I don’t think we’ve seen the final chapter of this particular battle / race.

But both were preceded by ceramics in Southeast Europe — more than 10,000 years earlier, as early as 35,000 years BP. They were made of ground bone, mammoth or other fat, and clay, then fired, so clearly a specific, intentional, relatively sophisticated human technology.

Ceramic: Any of various hard, brittle, heat-resistant and corrosion-resistant materials made by shaping and then firing a nonmetallic mineral, such as clay, at a high temperature.

Pottery: Ware, such as vases, pots, bowls, or plates, shaped from moist clay and hardened by heat.

i.e., pottery is a kind of ceramic ware.

See p. 123 and bibliography of this article for a few references:

Mihael Budja, “Early Neolithic pottery dispersals and demic diffusion in Southeastern Europe,” Documenta Praehistorica XXXVI (2009), 117-137.

Also this article by Olga Soffer and colleagues.

Soffer O., P. Vandiver, B. Klima, J. Svoboda “The pyrotechnology of performance art: Moravian venuses and Wolverines” In: H. Knecht,Before Lascaux. Boca Raton: CRC Press (1993), pp. 259-275.

Google on this: Soffer, Adovasio Hyland ceramic pellets

and you’ll find a lot more.

I followed the work of Olga Soffer, James Adovasio, and colleagues fairly closely when it first came out about 20 years ago, and I developed a fairly extensive bibliography, and even wrote up some pages about this paleolithic tradition of ceramics.

Please don’t fall into the sensationalism trap of “China had this first, so now we have to rewrite human history.” We see the fallacy of that approach over and over again, most recently with assertions that the dog was first domesticated in “China”. These assertions have now been disproven.

In judging all such claims, one cannot rely on a single type of analysis (e.g., genetics), especially when the data are of limited scope, nor can one rely on a single find-spot or location, disregarding the overall distribution of a cultural or technological trait, as globally as possible. In other words, one must always keep in mind the spread of a cultural characteristic or technological element across space and through time, actually it is better to keep in mind complexes of cultural characteristics and technological traits. That is why archeology, physical anthropology, and other “harder” disciplines must be employed to check upon the more mathematically, statistically, and analytically oriented disciplines, though the latter can be illuminating when used in conjunction with hard archeology, etc.

Let me give you a good example, one that I often cite. I consider Lü Enguo to be one of the best dirt archeologists in Xinjiang. He has excavated **and competently reported on** more archeological sites in Xinjiang than anyone else. He has a real feel for and understanding of objects / artifacts, has an extremely good eye, and has an ingrained sixth sense about the dating of pots, based on close examination of thousands of them from scores of sites. Not long after I met Lü Enguo, we were talking about the dating of Chärchän Man (“Ur David”) and other remains from the important site of Zaghunluq. At that time, back in the early and mid-90s, they were said to be 1000 BC, and that was supposedly based on C14 readings, but Lü Enguo said to me, “That’s impossible, because they have this type of jug (with a lip) and there are other aspects of their culture (including horse gear) that correspond with sites elsewhere around the Tarim Basin and beyond.

Lo and behold, the dates of Zaghunluq have now been brought down to 600-200 BC and even later for some things, exactly what Lü Enguo had said on the basis of the pottery, horse gear, and other typologies.

Recommendation: Do not jump on the “have to rewrite human history” bandwagon. You can be sure that there will be additional pottery findings in the future, and they might be in Japan, or somewhere else. And don’t ignore the Paleolithic ceramics of Southeast Europe.




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