The oldest clay pots demonstrably used to cook plants have been identified in Libya. Dated to more than 10,000 years ago, the unglazed pots are almost certainly the work of hunter-gatherers rather than settled farmers, say the archaeologists.
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The Libyan discoveries are at least two thousand years older than any similar ceramics found in Israel. But they're millennia "newer" than pottery found in East Asia that had been used to cook fish some 15,000 years ago.
The Libyan pottery was found at two spots in what is today the Sahara, the Uan Afuda cave and the Takarkori rock shelter. On the fragments, the scientists, from the Bristol, Rome, Modena and Milan, detected fat and wax residues from foods that had adsorbed to the unglazed clay.
Analysis of the residue shows the ancient Libyans ate a broad range of flora: grains, leaves, and aquatic plants from lakes, report the scientists in Nature Plants.
Back then, the environment hadn't been stark desert, and the land had been dotted with wetlands. Even today, though the area is among the driest in the arid Sahara, the area of the Tadrart Acacus mountains in Libya, where the sites are found, features springs and some vegetation. It also features a large amount of prehistoric rock art featuring animals and men.
Making gods, not cookware
Mankind has been using clay for at least 26,000 years. Figurines molded of clay into which crushed mammoth bone had been kneaded were discovered in at Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic. Actual ceramic pottery hardened by heating has been around a little less. But hunter-gatherers living in the freezing clime of Kubodera-minami , Japan were cooking fish and seafood in clay pots 15,000 years ago, five millennia before the ancient Libyans.
Also, an archaeological team digging in a cave in Hunan, China in the 1990s found pottery that was dated 20,000 years ago. The paper, published in 2012, associated the pottery with the preparation of food. For all we know, early pottery was used to cook fish, animals, plants, grains, flowers, herbal medicines, dope, who knows. The Chinese have not yet gotten around to residue analysis on the pottery, explains Ofer Bar-Yosef, professor emeritus of the Harvard department of anthropology, who led research on the site.
In China, what they found were pieces of round bowls, Bar-Yosef told Haaretz: The clay had been fired (though not in what we would call a proper kiln) at 500-600 degrees. That would have produced ceramics hard enough to enable some food processing. Theoretically the ancients might have cooked in them 20,000 years ago, double the age of the Libyan find.
When humans began to cook is an imponderable. Even the argument over when our ancestors learned to control fire rages on. (That is, controlled as "deliberately ignited and extinguished" as opposed to taking advantage of bushfires and the like).
Hominins had been been utilizing fire at least a million years ago – well before Homo sapiens and Neanderthals split, as indicated by the 780,000-year-old fireplaces exposed in the excavations at Gesher Benot Ya’acov in the Jordan Valley (conducted by Prof. Naama Gorne-Inbar of the Hebrew University). Some, such as Ron Shimelmitz of Haifa University, suggests that hominins were habitually controlling fire by 350,000 years ago in Tabun Cave on Mt Carmel.
Whatever their skill set with fire, both prehistoric Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are known to have eaten not only meat but plants – and the ability to cook would have enormously expanded their culinary options.
Of course, ancient cooking need not have been confined to toss-onto-the-fire or pot; hunter-gatherers have been known to cook by hanging a great leather bag over the fire with water and sometimes hot stones inside, Bar-Yosef points out.
Prehistoric chicken or egg
While ancient Libyans were cooking grains and leaves in pots 10,000 years ago, in Israel pottery was unknown at the time, Prof. Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa told Haaretz.
Locally, ceramic techniques were developed in what is today northern Syria some 9,000 years ago. Clay pots in which liquids and foods could be held began to appear in our area around 8,000 years ago, says Nadel – until which time, clay was used chiefly to make figurines, mainly animals, and small objects.
In the Far East, the invention of pottery predated the development of farming. In Israel and at least some of the regions, it went the other way around: agriculture predated pottery, Nadel explains.
The Neolithic domestication of wheat and barley (as well as goat, sheep, pig and cattle, Bar-Yosef adds) occurred in the northern Levant, today’s southeast Turkey and northern Syria, around 12,000 years ago. This Neolithic package of domesticated plants and animals spread to the southern Levant and later to Egypt. In the other direction, it spread through Mesopotamia, and that same package, and the skill of making pottery, made its way across Turkey into Europe, Bar-Yosef explains.
Nadel also points out that the discovery of a round pot does not an irrefutable conclusion make: it could have been used to store seeds, hold oil, or as a primitive vase for proto-bouquets of flowers. We really don't know, but as molecular archaeology advances, we may yet find out.