Yuchanyan and The World’s Oldest Pottery

June 3rd, 2009

by David J. Cohen (ICEAACH): A report on “Radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone collagen associated with early pottery at Yuchanyan Cave, Hunan Province, China” was published June 1, 2009, in the Early Edition of PNAS online.

Co-authored by the Sino-American-Israeli collaborative team of Elisabetta Boaretto, WU Xiaohong, YUAN Jiarong, Ofer Bar-Yosef, Vikki Chu, PAN Yan, LIU Kexin, David Cohen (ICEAACH), JIAO Tianlong, LI Shuicheng, GU Haibin, Paul Goldberg (BU Archaeology), and Steve Weiner, the paper presents the results of an analysis involving systematic sampling and careful prescreening in the field and lab of the sampled bone and charcoal samples for carbon content, preservation, and contamination from this Upper Paleolithic cave site in Southern China, as well as new pretreatment procedures for the samples.

This report offers an important, new methodology for dating the complex stratigraphic relationships of cave sites in China. The results of the study also provide what may be the most securely dated Upper (or Late) Paleolithic cave occupation in China. The combination of micromorphological analysis of the cave sediments, stratigraphical analysis, and having a systematic series of carefully prescreened radiocarbon samples and a total of 40 radiocarbon determinations for the deposits shows the following:

First, Yuchanyan was inhabited on and off between 21,000 to 13,800 years ago (calibrated). There were periods when the cave was being used by people, and periods when it was empty.

Second, the sediments in the cave were formed primarily through human action. People were making fires in the cave, and the ashes from the fires built up over time (and were moved about the cave, as well). People also carried clays into the cave to form surfaces. Other caves in South China are probably similar in their site formation processes and should be carefully studied.

Third, early pottery was found in Yuchanyan Cave. It is very thick walled, coarse, soft, and low-fired, and the pottery’s clay has mixed into it many large inclusions of small pebbles. One cluster of sherds excavated in the 1990s was able to be refitted into the shape of the original vessel–a conical-shaped cauldron. The radiocarbon study of Yuchanyan demonstrates that the earliest pottery in the cave is from deposits that date 18,300 to 15,430 years ago (calibrated). These secure dates indicate that Yuchanyan’s ceramic vessels may be the earliest yet found in the world.

The news of the Yuchanyan dates has spread quickly across the globe in coverage by major news outlets:

For more on Yuchanyan, see the description of the project on the ICEAACH website here.