In one of the largest studies of its kind, an international team of researchers conducted organic residue analysis of almost 800 ceramic vessels from 46 Jomon culture archaeological sites, dated to between 13,000 and 6,000 BC, in Japan to identify their contents. The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrate that pottery had a strong association with the processing of fish and other aquatic resources.
The team, headed by Dr. Alex Lucquin from the University of York, recovered diagnostic lipids from the charred surface deposits of the Jomon pottery with most of the compounds deriving from the processing of freshwater or marine organisms.
“These vessels were used by Jomon hunter-gatherers to store and process fish — initially salmon, but then a wider range including shellfish, freshwater and marine fish and mammals — as fishing intensified,” the scientists said.
“This association with fish remained stable even after the onset of climate warming, including in more southerly areas, where expanding forests provided new opportunities for hunting game and gathering plants.”
The samples analyzed are some of the earliest found and date from the end of the Late Pleistocene — a time when our ancestors were living in glacial conditions — to the post-glacial period when the climate warmed close to its current temperature and when pottery began to be produced in much greater quantity.
“Thanks to the exceptional preservation of traces of animal fat, we now know that pottery changed from a rare and special object to an every-day tool for preparing fish,” Dr. Lucquin said.
“I think that our study not only reveals the subsistence of the ancient Jomon people of Japan but also its resilience to a dramatic change in climate.”
“These findings are significant because they provide proof of the diversity of foodways and culinary innovations that developed at the end of the last Ice Age and into the modern geological era, the Holocene, when the modern environmental conditions that we are now so used to were developing,” said co-author Dr. Simon Kaner, an archaeologist at the University of East Anglia.
“Our results demonstrate that pottery had a strong association with the processing of fish, irrespective of the ecological setting,” added senior author Professor Oliver Craig, from the University of York.
“Contrary to expectations, this association remained stable even after the onset of warming, including in more southerly areas, where expanding forests provided new opportunities for hunting and gathering.”
“The results indicate that a broad array of fish was processed in the pottery after the end of the last Ice Age, corresponding to a period when hunter-gatherers began to settle in one place for longer periods and develop more intensive fishing strategies.”
“We suggest this marks a significant change in the role of pottery of hunter-gatherers, corresponding massively increased volume of production, greater variation in forms and sizes, and the onset of shellfish exploitation.”
Alexandre Lucquin et al. The impact of environmental change on the use of early pottery by East Asian hunter-gatherers. PNAS, published online July 16, 2018; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1803782115
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