13.7: Cosmos And Culture
11:39 am
Thu April 18, 2013

What 15,000 Years Of Cooking Fish Tells Us About Humanity

Research published last week in the journal Nature shows that hunter-gatherer people living in Japan 15,000 ago cooked food in ceramic pots. Chemical analysis of the charred remains in the pots demonstrates that the food items were both marine and freshwater in origin, and almost certainly fish rather than mollusks.

Until recently the invention of pottery-making was linked to the onset of agriculture, around 12,000 years ago. The thinking was that hunter-gatherers — foragers who typically are nomadic, without domesticated crops or animals — were either too mobile or simply too unsophisticated to have made ceramics. And when pottery finally was dated prior to the onset of farming, the function of pots made by hunter-gatherers was unknown. Until now.

So this is big news, because it shifts, yet again, our understanding of the behavior of forager peoples. Archaeologist Oliver E. Craig, of York University in the UK, is the lead author (of 14 total) on the article, which is entitled "Earliest evidence for the use of pottery." In an email message to me on Tuesday, Craig reflected on this new understanding:

We often think that hunter-gatherers were so shaped by the environments they lived in, almost passive, subsisting on the foods immediately available to them. I think this pottery study shows how sophisticated they were, even during the late Paleolithic. They had time to produce pots for processing foods selectively — they valued different foods in different ways, just like we do today.

To understand what Craig means by "processing foods selectively," it's helpful to look at the details of the study. Charred food remains from more than 101 vessels found at 13 sites across Japan were analyzed, especially in terms of molecular and stable isotopes in lipids (fats). The results, in particular the nitrogen-isotope results, point to fish instead of other aquatic organisms.

The pottery at this early prehistoric stage was apparently, judging from archaeological analysis, produced in low quantities compared to what came later. The 14 authors conclude in Nature:

Therefore, pottery may have initially been reserved for specialized subsistence activities or ritual use, rather than being a widespread technology integral to everyday culinary practices.

Here, the picture, for an anthropologist, becomes even more intriguing, though also speculative. (To my non-archaeological sensibility, couldn't low numbers of pots just mean ... low numbers of pots?)

The idea is that hunter-gatherers — who, during many periods and in many habitats, enjoyed enough abundance not to eat hand-to-mouth to survive — accorded special status to some foods. In discussing this possibility, Oliver Craig sent me an article published 10 years ago in the journal World Archaeology by Brian Hayden that establishes a good frame of reference. Hayden describes some Southeast Asian prehistoric societies, among the first to domesticate plants and animals, that he thinks also produced the first "luxury goods" — foods used in the context of ceremonial feasting.

Whether the Japanese hunter-gatherers of 15,000 years ago were using food for ceremonial feasts or not, we do know they were smart, innovative people who made the most of the resources around them.

Why is our fallback assumption so often that people who came before us tended to be simple and unsophisticated? I've written here before about a massive structure on a hill in Turkey that some archaeologists consider to be the world's first temple, built by hunter-gatherers 11,000 years ago. And even about a paint factory that existed as far back as 100,000 years ago in South Africa.

There's still a lot to work out about the details of why prehistoric hunter-gatherers made pots or paint or erected large buildings (Food rituals, or not? Art, or not? Temples for worship, or not?). Still, the discovery of 15,000 years of cooked fish is a new and exciting reason to recognize that our Homo sapiens ancestors were socially and technologically complex long before the advent of agriculture.


Barbara's new book, How Animals Grieve, has just been published. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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