An Incipient Jomon pot from Kubodera-minami, Niigata Prefecture, Japan ca. 15,000 years old. Photo: courtesy of Tokamchi City Museum.

Analysis of some of the world’s earliest pots has revealed that Ice Age hunter-gatherers enjoyed a fish supper.

An international team of researchers, led by the University of York, examined charred food residues inside 101 pots made by the Jomon hunter-gatherer culture of Japan. Dating back up to 15,000 years, they represent the earliest direct evidence for how ceramic vessels were used.

While the invention of pottery was traditionally associated with the development of agriculture and a more sedentary lifestyle during the Neolithic period, it is now known that ceramics were made by nomadic groups towards the end of the last Ice Age. The reasons for the emergence and widespread uptake of this new technology have, until recently, been poorly understood, however.

Now a study recently published in Nature sheds new light on the purpose of some of these early pots. Isotope analysis on vessels from across Japan show high levels of aquatic foods, indicating that they were used to cook fish.

Torihama pot Photo: courtesy of Wakasa History and Folk Law Museum

‘The study shows that there are fat residues preserved in organic crusts found on pottery from the Incipient Jomon period. By analysing these, we can see what the vessels were used for. The question of why people began to manufacture cooking vessels is very basic – it’s the origin of all the pots and pans in the kitchens of today that we are looking for,’ said Sven Isaksson, Associate Professor at the Archaeological Research Laboratory and the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Stockholm University. ‘The results show that a significant proportion of the vessels were used to prepare fish, both freshwater and marine.’

‘Foragers first used pottery as a revolutionary new strategy for the processing of marine and freshwater organisms, but perhaps the most interesting is that this fundamental adaptation emerged over a period of severe climate change, ‘ added project leader Dr Oliver Craig of the University of York. ‘The reliability and high abundance of food along shorelines and river-banks may well have provided the initial impetus for an investment in producing ceramic containers, perhaps to make the most of seasonal gluts or as part of elaborate celebratory feasts and could be linked to a reduction in mobility.’

He added: ‘This study demonstrates that it is possible to analyse organic residues from some of the world’s earliest ceramic vessels. It opens the way for further study of hunter-gatherer pottery from later periods to clarify the development of what was a revolutionary technology.’