The impact of environmental change on the use of early pottery by East Asian hunter-gatherers

Alexandre Luquin (Lead Author), Harry K. Robson, Yvette Eley, Shinya Shoda, Dessislava Veltcheva, Kevin Gibbs, Carl P. Heron, Sven Isaksson, Yastami Nishida, Yasuhiro Taniguchi, Shōta Nakajima, Kenichi Kobayashi, Peter Jordan, Simon Kaner, Oliver E. Craig

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The invention of pottery was a fundamental technological advancement with far-reaching economic and cultural consequences. Pottery containers first emerged in East Asia during the Late Pleistocene in a wide range of environmental settings, but became particularly prominent and much more widely dispersed after climatic warming at the start of the Holocene. Some archaeologists argue that this increasing usage was driven by environmental factors, as warmer climates would have generated a wider range of terrestrial plant and animal resources that required processing in pottery. However, this hypothesis has never been directly tested. Here, in one of the largest studies of its kind, we conducted organic residue analysis of >800 pottery vessels selected from 46 Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene sites located across the Japanese archipelago to identify their contents. Our results demonstrate that pottery had a strong association with the processing of aquatic resources, irrespective of the ecological setting. Contrary to expectations, this association remained stable even after the onset of Holocene warming, including in more southerly areas, where expanding forests provided new opportunities for hunting and gathering. Nevertheless, the results indicate that a broader array of aquatic resources was processed in pottery after the start of the Holocene. We suggest this marks a significant change in the role of pottery of hunter-gatherers, corresponding to an increased volume of production, greater variation in forms and sizes, the rise of intensified fishing, the onset of shellfish exploitation, and reduced residential mobility.
Original languageEnglish
Article number201803782
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jul 2018


  • archaeology
  • early pottery
  • organic residue analysis
  • stable isotopes
  • Jomon

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