Ancient Pottery Casts Light on Social Networks Among European Hunter-gatherers

Pottery technique may have arisen in Asia thousands of years before agriculture, but when it finally reached Europe, it spread oddly fast

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Experimental cooking using fire and modern replicas of hunter-gatherer style pots.Credit: Rowan Mclaughlin
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The success of sapiens has been ascribed to a unique spark of genius, matchless social dexterities, perhaps frontal lobe complexities that other human variants lacked. In any case, by the Last Glacial Maximum other human variants were gone and the ensuing Holocene period starting about 11,70 years ago featured developmental spurts that drove the rise of modern civilization as we know it.

One of these innovations was agriculture. Another was pottery.

The emergence of these game-changing technologies had been assumed to be connected. Pottery was thought to be an innovation of sedentary agriculturalists because hunter-gatherers wouldn’t want to roam encumbered by heavy, fragile pots. Also, making pottery is time-consuming: one has to find clay, collect it, clean out impurities such as vegetation fragments, knead it to rid it of gas bubbles that would cause the pot to explode in the fire, shape it, let it dry in peace, then fire it once, fire it again at a hotter temperature (but not so hot that it melts) and let it cool. It takes weeks at the least, so nomads couldn’t do that – could they?

The snag is that archaeology has proven that some ancient hunter-gatherers did make pottery. (Since the definition of “ceramic” is “hard-baked thing,” then all pottery is ceramic but not all ceramics are pottery.)

So any obligate correlation with agriculture is dead. But did pottery arise once and spread? And if it did, how? Was it like agriculture, emerging independently multiple times and spreading through demic diffusion: migration of early farmers?

Now a new paper published Thursday in Nature Human Behavior describes pottery use and dispersal among European hunter-gatherers in the mid-Holocene, thousands of years after the technology arose in the Far East, according to Ekaterina Dolbunova, Alexandre Lucquin and T. Rowan McLaughlin of Saint Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, London Museum and colleagues.

Their evidence indicates that the early eastern and central European ceramics arose from a single earlier emergence event, in Asia but the knowhow likely did not spread through migration. Its spread in Europe was too fast for that

Going to pot

By this point, archaeologists mostly agree that agriculture arose independently around the world at different times. In the Near East (Turkey) and Far East (China), farming began around 10,000 years ago and spread through migration of early farmers. In Africa and the Americas, it arose independently some thousands of years later.

Is it plausible that our ancestors never ever thought of farming until the Holocene and then the idea germinated independently around the world? It may sound stretched but human evolution and the weather could have had contemporaneous turning points; and during previous hiatuses from ice ages, our comprehension wasn’t there yet. So it is believed that agriculture arose independently around the world.

Could pottery also have developed independently multiple times?

Exactly when pottery first began is debated. Some researchers date crude pots in southeastern China to around 18,000 years ago and items in Japan to perhaps 16,500 years ago. Neither date is set in stone, but McLaughlin confirms pottery definitely arose in that part of the world more than 10,000 years ago.

Even the earliest pottery, found in Xianrendong Cave, was decorated early potteryCredit: http://fotos.noticias.bol.uol.com.br/entretenimento/

“Hunter-gatherer pottery is well known from the Far East,” he elaborates. “It was however once thought that some European hunter-gatherer pottery was due to the influence of neighboring agricultural societies. But we have been able to demonstrate this was not the case – instead, it was an innovation that spread out of Asia.”

There are discontinuities in the data from Asia, he says; but it seems the technique spread from eastern Asia to central Asia about 8,500 years ago, then meandered to eastern Europe a few hundred years later. But once arriving in eastern Europe, the knowledge seems to have spread strangely fast.

Asked if he believes that the earliest potters might have been fully nomadic or rather were semi-nomadic, he answers: “Probably both.”

So, case closed? One point of origin? Case not closed. The hunter-gatherers who built the stupendous monumental sites in southeast Turkey – Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe and others, between 12,000 to about 10,500 years ago – had pottery too, over 2,000 years before the central Europeans. Also, potting emerged in Africa over 11,000 years ago and a couple of millennia later, in the Middle East.

Hunter gatherers made elaborate pots: Early stage Jomon pottery, Jomon Museum at Sannai Maruyama, JapanCredit: Wmpearl

McLaughlin thinks these were probably separate innovations. The pottery techniques evident at the tepes were adopted by early farmers who arose after the Göbekli culture and spread to Western Europe (even ultimately reaching Britain) taking their knowhow with them, via a different route.

So perhaps pottery did arise more than once. Now let us return to the pottery of eastern European hunter-gatherers.

A watched pot

One question that begs asking is: If pottery does go back, say, 20,000 years, or 18,000 or 14,500, why did it take so long to crawl out of the Far East, only arriving after thousands of years?

Early pottery of the Yarmukian Culture in Israel, at the Israel Museum, JerusalemCredit: מתוך חשבון הפליקר של Gary Todd

Again McLaughlin points us in the direction of discontinuities in the evidence, which is the bane of archaeologists worldwide. But in the researchers’ opinion, early European ceramics seem to have been the result of a single connected process, involving knowledge disseminated by social networks of hunter-gatherers.

What did hunter gatherers do with their pottery? One theory had been that perhaps it served to carry water. Maybe it did. But for sure, says McLaughlin, they used it to cook, and for illumination. They also made oil lamps.

Chemical characterization of organic residues at the bottom of the pots, and burned crusts of food, indicates that European hunter-gatherer pottery shows the evidence of cooking, though that cannot rule out they were also used to store food. The finds attest to regional culinary practices, the team suggests, which doesn't man that a single pot couldn't serve for multiple purposes; likely they did.

Also indicating cultural ties are the forms and physical properties of the hunter-gatherer ceramics in central and Eastern Europe, plausibly reflecting traditions handed down over generations of hunter-gatherers. But while clearly early farmers were slowly migrating and taking their knowhow with them, the speed of pottery's dissemination in Europe leads the researchers to a different conclusion: transmission by social networks.

The upshot of the study is this: modern society owes more to hunter-gatherers than we may have realized.

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