Hunter-gatherers stopped roaming, settled by sea, Jomon pots show


Charred food residues from the world’s oldest pots show humans used ceramics for cooking in the late ice age, long before hunter-gatherers settled down to become farmers, a recent study says.

The find raises questions about the turning point in history that saw hunters abandon a roaming lifestyle 10,000 years ago to start domesticating animals and plants to secure their food.

Scrapings taken from more than 100 shards of Japanese pots dated between 11,800 and 15,000 years ago were analyzed by mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to derive a chemical “fingerprint” from heating tiny samples.

They revealed fatty molecules called lipids, which came from cooked fish and “nonruminant” animals, the paper published in the journal Nature said. Nonruminants have a single-compartment stomach and include such species as pigs and horses.

“Foragers first used pottery as a revolutionary new strategy for the processing of marine and freshwater fish,” said lead researcher Oliver Craig of England’s University of York.

The pieces were found mainly on the western coast of Honshu. They date to the Incipient Jomon Period, named after aboriginal foragers who inhabited the archipelago in the late ice age.

The idea that hunter-gatherers used pots is controversial because they are delicate objects that would seem to have no place in a tribe constantly on the move. Many anthropologists had presumed that Jomon pottery was brought out only for special rituals and ceremonies, and wasn’t used for day-to-day living.

But the new study points to a probably widespread culinary use. It notes that the 13 sites they were found at are on Japan’s narrow coastal plain and rivers, where there would have been an abundance of fish, marine mammals and game — a big temptation for hunter-gatherers to give up life on the move.

“For a long time, ceramics have only been associated with farmers, but now it is becoming clear that pottery was used by hunter-gatherers in many parts of the world,” Craig said. “In Japan this has been known for a long time, but raises the question: Why would these mobile hunter-gatherers invest time in heavy, fragile pots?

“Our research shows that (the) pottery was associated with processing fish — we suggest that these resource-rich, water-edge environments meant that they could be slightly less mobile, thus freeing up time to invest in pottery production.”

Demographic and social factors, and the changing climate no doubt also played a role in creating this halfway house.

“In Japan, agriculture (rice) was not introduced for another 10,000 years,” said Craig. “We can’t just assume that agriculturalists were sedentary and hunter-gatherers mobile — it’s much more complex. Often, too much emphasis is placed on the great changes brought about by the introduction of domesticated plants and animals when hunter-gatherers were living very similar lives (to settled farmers).”