In Japan the rapid spread 11,000 years ago of a key new technology – pottery – was driven almost entirely by the need to store seafood.
This finding, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, runs against expectations. It was assumed – although never investigated – that the sudden widespread adoption of pottery many years after its first emergence in East Asia around 20,000 years ago was because a warming climate made it necessary to store more and more terrestrial plant and animal food sources.
To test this assumption, researchers led by archaeologist Alex Lucquin from the University of York in the UK conducted chemical analyses on more than 800 ancient pots retrieved from 46 sites across the Japanese archipelago.
The results were surprising. Regardless of whether the pots were found buried inland or near the coast, in every case the testing returned traces of seafood. The association remained robust even for the much more numerous pots made and used after the end of the last Ice Age, despite the consequent expansion of forests and the abundant food species that lived within them.
The testing was carried out by extracting fat molecules from charred surface deposits, and using them to identify different species. The most common result for the oldest pots was salmon, with other marine and freshwater fish, as well as molluscs and even a few marine mammals being added to the haul as the climate warmed.
“Our results demonstrate that pottery had a strong association with the processing of fish, irrespective of the ecological setting,” says co-author Oliver Craig.
“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.”