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Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 6, No.

1, 1999

On the Origins of Pottery

Prudence M. Rice1

Renewed research interest in the origins of pottery has illuminated an array of possible precipitating causes and environmental contexts in which pottery began to be made and used. This article is an attempt at synthesizing some of these data in hopes of stimulating further research into this intriguing topic. Following a review of theories on the origins of pottery, discussion proceeds to a survey of geographic and cultural contexts of low-fired or unfired pottery, highlighting the role(s) of pottery among contemporary hunter-gatherers and summarizing data pertaining to varied uses of pottery containers. It is argued that objects of unfired and low-fired clay were created as part of early "prestige technologies" of material representations beginning in the Upper Paleolithic and are part of an early "software horizon." Clay began to be more widely manipulated by nonsedentary, complex hunter-gatherers in the very Late Pleistocene and early Holocene in areas of resource abundance, especially in tropical/subtropical coastal/riverine zones, as part of more general processes of resource and social intensification (such as "competitive feasting" or communal ritual). Knowledge of making and using pottery containers spread widely as "prestige technology" and as "practical technology," the kind and timing of its adoption or "reinvention" varying from location to location depending on specific needs and circumstances.
KEY WORDS: pottery origins; ceramic technology; intensification; complex hunter-gatherers. No innovation springs full-blown out of nothing; it must have antecedents, and these are always traceable . . . H. G. Barnett (1953, p. 181)


of Anthropology, Mailcode 4502, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois 62901.

l072-5369/99/0300-0001$16.00/0 c 1999 Plenum Publishing Corporation


INTRODUCTION Pottery and its origins have been crucial tropes in cultural histories since ancient times. Pots and the raw materials and tools of their manufacture contributed rich imagery and metaphors for the ineffable experiences of humankind, including the Biblical creation of humans from clay, birth, life, death, and sexual experience (for a review of examples in the Near Eastern literature, see Foster, 1991). Myths of many contemporary South American groups refer to clay, pots, and potters, along with birds and vines (especially squash vines), in association with earthly creation and cosmic struggles (Levi-Strauss, 1988, especially p. 1821). Similarly, in the Popol Vuh, the book of the "dawn of life" of the Quiche Maya in highland Guatemala, gods Tzakol and Bitol made the earth and its plants and creatures. Glossed as "Maker" and "Modeler," these gods' names come from verbs indicating the making of shapes, such as pottery vessels, out of formless, pliable materials like clay (Tedlock, 1985, pp. 347-348). While these "deep structures" reveal the perduring significance of pottery in human history, they contribute precious little to scientific analyses of how and why pottery containers initially began to be made. An understanding of the origins and use of early pottery requires that we move beyond correlations and observations to explanations: not simply "How was pottery used?" but "What was pottery's function?" Was its practical container usage foremost? Or was its inception a development out of some other function(s), perhaps symbolic, related to ritual and/or status? How and why did pottery come to be present in early material assemblages? Most fundamentally, we may ask, Why pots? During the last decade, there has been rising interest in the anthropology of technology and material culture (e.g., Lemmonier, 1986, 1993; Pfaffenberger, 1988, 1992; van der Leeuw and Torrence, 1989), and in this context questions about the origins and spread of early pottery have reemerged as legitimate research foci (Brown, 1989; case studies in Barnett and Hoopes, 1995; Hoopes, 1994; Pavlu, 1996; Wang, 1995). Not surprisingly, given that the origin of pottery is embedded in a "complex mix of ecological, historical, economic, and social factors that differed greatly among past human societies" (Hoopes and Barnett, 1995, p. 7), researchers have approached these topics from diverse viewpoints. It is evident that multiple locations and multiple causes are implicated in the origin/invention of pottery around the world. Nonetheless, certain circumstancesparticularly ecological/environmental settings and socioeconomic processesseem to be involved in this phenomenon, and these warrant further scrutiny and synthesis. My concern here is primarily with "origins" in the sense of pottery's initial emergence (inception, invention, innovation) as a container

Origins of Pottery

technology, and less with the subsequent spread or adoption2 of this technology.

CONCEPTS AND THEORIES IN THE ORIGINS OF POTTERY Pottery, as tool and as technology, represents a sophisticated merging of previously separate domains of human knowledge and experience: resources, technological processes, and needs; or, more specifically, clay, fire, and containment. Discovery of the changes wrought in clay when fire was applied has been recognized since the late nineteenth century as a significant technological leap. Following the lead of Tylor (1871, p. 273), Morgan (1878, pp. 12-14) distinguished "lower barbarism" from "upper savagery" by the presence of pottery, heralding "a new epoch in human progress in the direction of an improved living and increased domestic conveniences." Decades later, Childe (1939, p. 90) hailed it "the earliest conscious utilization ... of a chemical change" in inorganic materials, i.e., the formation of artificial stone. But when and why was this conceptual link made between plastic clay and fire hardening, and when was it attached to the need for portable containers? To borrow the term employed by Schiffer and Skibo (1987), we might ask, When and how did these principles crystallize into a ceramic "technoscience"? We can try to move toward an answer by considering each of the three technological components of pottery in more detail, and then reviewing theories as to their convergence.

Components of Pottery Technology The primary component of pottery, clay, draws upon humans' knowledge of the properties of earthy materials. Clay's versatility and physical propertiesmalleability or plasticity when wet and hardening when dried or heatedcoupled with its ready availability surely were recognized early in human history, making it an attractive resource with many applications.

Questions about the adoption of pottery, i.e., its wider incorporation into the container technology of previously nonpottery-using societies, are related to its innovation in the sense of the addition of novelty into a material assemblage. The spread or adoption of pottery is addressed, in one way or another, in several publications (see, e.g., chapters in Barnett and Hoopes, 1995; also Arnold, 1985; Brown, 1989; Sassaman, 1993; Vandiver, 1987). Note also that I am not addressing in detail noncontainer uses of clay, such as figurines (see Clark and Gosser, 1995; Moore, 1995; Vandiver et al., 1990) and ornaments.


Although parietal "art" (i.e., cave painting) is typically interpreted as humans' earliest "artistic" expression, prestige technologies, three-dimensional representations, and symbolic behavior appeared considerably earlier, perhaps as much as 35,000-40,000 years ago (Hayden, 1995; White, 1992, pp. 538, 548; cf. Lindley and Clark, 1990). These representations are modeled, sculpted, engraved, and sometimes painted objects of clay, antler, ivory, stone, and other materials in the form of humans, animals, and personal adornments. The earliest surviving examples of ceramic technology may be found in Eurasia during early Upper Paleolithic times, i.e., the fired and unfired clay figurines at Dolni Vestonici (see below) and other sites. Clay and colored earths were perhaps the earliest expressive or "artistic" media used by humans, and as such they may have been employed for a variety of other needs [balls for slings, lining basketry, counting tokens, beads or ornaments, and so forth (Schmandt-Besserat, 1974, 1977a, b, 1978)]. The second major component of pottery manufacture is the use of fire. Humans have had knowledge of fire for several hundred thousand years (James, 1989), including recognition of its useful ability, when properly applied, to harden objects of wood and clay. The site of Dolni Vestonici, an Upper Paleolithic seasonal (summer and winter) campsite for mammoth hunters in the then-tundra of Czechoslovakia, provides intriguing evidence. Thousands of small fragments of fired ceramic, plus several "kilns," attest to sophisticated knowledge of the behavior and properties of both clay and fire some 26,000 years ago (Vandiver et al., 1989, 1990; Pavlu, 1996). The clay was used to form zoo- and anthropomorphic figurines, but on the basis of their experiments the researchers believe that the ancient artisans did not intend to manufacture durable images. Instead, they conjecture, the artisans fired the clay objects while still wet, and the entire procedure was designed to thermally shock the items, causing them to steam, sizzle, and explode, perhaps for ritual or divinatory purposes. The third component in the pottery equation is recognition that clay + fire can be manipulated in such a way as to meet a need for containers. This need was met, in preceramic times and among contemporary huntergatherers,3 by making use of objects readily available in the environment, such as animal skins, gourds, large shells, or by using wood, bark, and fibers to fashion bowls, nets, and baskets. But when and how did an understanding of the transformation of clay objects with the application of heat

I use the term "hunter-gatherer" here as a convenient shorthand term to refer to non-food-producing groups who practice a broad range of hunting, gathering, fishing, foraging, and/or collecting subsistence strategies and whose settlement pattern is largely mobile or semisedentary. A great deal of variability in subsistence, settlement, and societal complexity is subsumed within this rubric (for extended discussion see Arnold, 1996).

Origins of Pottery

lead to the production of fired clay containers? The Dolni Vestonici researchers (Vandiver et al., 1989, p. 1008) conclude that this Upper Paleolithic ceramic technology, "because of [its] social context . . ., could not have led to pottery production," by which they presumably mean production of pottery containers. This early exampleadmittedly a sample of only one casesuggests that clay as raw material and clay as [potential] container were two separate technological domains"prestige" and "practical," to borrow Hayden's (1993, p. 203; 1995, 1998) terms-at least at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period. When, how, and why did these domains coalesce?

Theories of Pottery Origins Finds of pottery in agricultural fields led sixteenth-century European scholars to believe that they sprouted spontaneously out of the earth or represented utensils belonging to dwarves (Abramowicz, 1981). More recently it has been suggested that clay containers were inspired by "soil crusts" (Goffer, 1980, p. 108). These quaint notions aside, we are more interested here in propositions that more closely resemble testable "theories." It is important to bear in mind that the theories discussed below are not mutually exclusive. Architecture. One theory of the origins of pottery is based on parallels between construction of buildings out of clay and construction of pots out of clay. Analysis of early pottery in western Asia led Vandiver (1987) to propose what might be called an "architectural hypothesis" on the basis of analysis of the composition and forming techniques of early vegetal- and chaff-tempered coarseware found at sites in the Zagros region of western Asia beginning around 7000 B.C. This fiber-tempered pottery was manufactured by "sequential slab construction," a technique she feels is closely related to existing architectural construction methods using mixtures of clay and straw in daub, mud-brick, and puddled adobe (or pise). Calling attention to the technological isomorphism in "using preformed elements without standard sizes to be stacked on top of one another," she proposed (1987, p. 10; emphasis added) that the innovation of ceramic technology was a
. . . two step process in which forming developed first and independently of firing. A period of time when people did not choose or did not know how to make pottery was followed by a period when clay vessels were formed and sunbaked, without being consolidated by firing. This was followed by the emergence of pottery as a mature pyrotechnical craft [ca. 5500 B.C.].


She concluded that "pottery technology probably developed out of prepottery neolithic plaster technology or out of or along with architectural technology" (Vandiver, 1987, p. 29). In developing these ideas, she drew upon earlier notions of Dyson (1965), who postulated an early "software horizon" to include the western Asian ceramic material. Apart from similarities in the forming process, there are also technological links between clay and plaster in the use of fire. Moore (1995, pp. 45-46) amplified these ideas, noting that the firing of clay containers in western Asia may represent a transference of prior pyrotechnical knowledge of calcining calcite or gypsum to make plaster (see also Gourdin and Kingery, 1975; Pavlu, 1996, pp. 30-31). Indeed, the earliest manufactured containers in this region were made of plaster, including small vaiselles blanches in bowl and pan forms (Marechal, 1982) and larger storage jars. The latter were built into early houses in the Levant as permanent storage facilities, and were
. . . often formed in molds made of baskets or other materials. The walls were built up in thin layers . . . . The greatest quantities of [these jars] were made in the few centuries before and after 8000 bp . . . . This abundance suggests that the need for large, durable containers to store foodstuffs indoors increased significantly during the ninth millennium, providing one reason, perhaps, for the invention of pottery. (Moore, 1995, p. 45)

Culinary Hypotheses. Traditional views of the origins of pottery containers are kitchen-based (for review, see Brown, 1989): According to various "culinary hypotheses," pottery was thought to have been invented after the discovery that sun-baked clay could be used to create a rigid container useful for storage, capable of being placed over a fire for toasting, and able to hold liquids if fired. Ideas abound as to how this invention might have come about. Some center on the extension of prior knowledge of clay's properties, either for lining baskets to confer impermeability (Childe, 1936, p. 89; Linne, 1925, p. 3; Morgan, 1878, p. 14, n. 1; Morris, 1927; Wormington and Neal, 1951, p. 9) or for lining ovens or firepits, the clay being hardened when heat was applied (e.g., Amiran, 1965, p. 242).

Vandiver (1987, p. 29) sees early pottery technology in western Asia as part of a broader technological complex that she refers to as "soft stone technology." Throughout the region "there was a technology of earthy pastes, using a large variety of resources, from limestone, gypsum, steatite, quartz, hematite, etc., to sediments of the above in a wide diversity of mixtures both with one another and with water or other liquid organic binder, to form such materials as plasters, pigments and ceramics, in similar ways for a wide variety of purposesbeads, sling balls, jar sealings, loomweights, daub, bricks, vessels, etc." A metaphorical as well as a technical link between these technologies may have existed in the ancient Near East, as clay, pottery, and bricks were symbolically intermeshed in numerous ways, including associations between the creation of bricks and human birth and even the birth of civilization (Foster, 1991, pp. 392-393).

Origins of Pottery

The culinary origin of fired pottery containers is supported by the fact that in many areas of the world the earliest known pottery mimics the shape of food containers made of other, usually perishable, materials. Sixty years ago, it was asserted that early pots copied familiar containers made from other materials because "pots were generally made by women and for women, and women are particularly suspicious of radical innovations . . . [clay pots would then] look less new-fangled and outlandish to the prudent housewife!" (Childe, 1936, pp. 93-94). Gourds and hard-rind squashes seem to have been especially favored (Joesink-Mandeville, 1973; Heidke and Stark, 1996). Early pots may have been formed by press-molding, i.e., pressing moist clay inside or outside these disposable natural molds, as suggested by the morphological similarities of early pots to bottle gourds (Flannery and Marcus, 1994, pp. 47-50). Similar forms (called "skeuomorphs") have also been noted with other prototype containers, including bags or baskets of birchbark (Speck, 1931), soapstone bowls (Griffin, 1965, pp. 105-106; Sassaman, 1993), animal skin bags, and so forth. Woven fiber bags could have been a particularly useful prototype in some regions, such as the southeastern and midwestern United States. Here, pottery often has cordmarking in the interior, suggesting to Brown (1986, p. 600) that these vessels were manufactured "over an armature whose presence left traces in horizontal cordmarks on the vessel interiors." Pots could have been press-molded inside these bags or created by spreading moist clay over a piece of fabric or matting which was then rolled up into a bag form and left to dry before firing. Another possible early culinary use of clay is in "clay cooking," the practice of encasing meat, such as whole fish or fowl, in clay prior to baking in a fire. Roasting whole cuts of meat in a clay casing yields moist and tender meat while retaining nutritious juices; smaller cuts or individual items (shellfish) might be steamed with less water than by other methods. The practice can be found today in many cuisines [e.g., Indian (tandoori chicken), south Chinese (beggar's chicken), Yucatec Mexican (polio pibil), to name a few], and Swanton (1979, p. 370) mentions the practice among turn-of-the-century Native Americans in the southeastern United States. Amorphous fragments of burned clay are commonly found at early archaeological sites, and these could represent clay firepit lining, figurines, or clay cookery.5

Such possibilities require careful attention, and unfortunately the evidence is usually negative. For example, at the Diana site, an Archaic site in Illinois (radiocarbon dated to ca. 4000-3700 B.C.), fired sandy clay fragments were recovered that were not clearly pottery (Lopinot, 1991, pp. 168-172). Since they were found in pit features, they could represent burned firepit lining. Or they could represent the results of clay roasting. Very little faunal material was recovered from the site, doubtless a preservation problem exacerbated by acid soils, but small birds (quail, pigeon), rodents, or fish might have been roasted and eaten, bones and all. For a description of historic-period cooking techniques in the Southeast, see Swanton (1979, pp. 368-372).


In general, culinary hypotheses concerning the origins of pottery have long embedded this innovation in the so-called "Neolithic transition" and the interwoven processes of food production and sedentarization that accompanied large-scale lifestyle transformations at the beginning of the Holocene (Childe, 1936). The theoretical grounding of the association of these processes is based, to a greater or lesser degree, in the prevailing discourse of Western-biased reconstructions of the origins of civilization: Societal complexity is believed to have originated in temperate (highland and/or arid riverine) areas where the economic base of cultivated cereals (wheat, barley, corn) provided storable surpluses to feed large, sedentary populations. Pottery was considered an integral part of this Neolithic complex, partly in order to boil these grains, but also because sedentary village existence permitted the use and elaboration of these fragile vessels. Most of the explanations supporting the culinary context of pottery invention and subsequent adoption fall into the category of what Brown (1989, pp. 210-211) has called "adaptationist" or "enabling" explanations. In response to the question, Why would people have begun making containers out of clay if containers for storage, transport, and processing were already available in other raw materials?, adherents would answer that pottery provided a new technologyan adaptationthat enabled a range of new foods to be processed. This was part of the much-heralded "broadspectrum collecting" strategies for adapting to changing environments at the close of the Pleistocene. In these circumstances, fired clay containers are thought to have had numerous advantages, such as (1) increasing efficiency in preparing new food items, especially cereals (wheat, barley, maize), by toasting or by direct or "indirect" boiling (stone-boiling); (2) enhancing capacity and security of long-term storage of grains and pulses; (3) improving nutrition delivery to children, nursing mothers, and the elderly by permitting preparation of soft cooked foods, e.g., for weaning (Crown and Wills, 1995, p. 249; Hoopes and Barnett, 1995, pp. 5-6); (4) widening the range of resources that could be used as food in the postglacial period, effectively increasing the carrying capacity of the environment (Ikawa-Smith, 1976, p. 515); (5) reducing the time spent in tending or pot-watching (Schiffer and Skibo, 1987), compared to containers of gourds, stone, bark, skin, or basketry used for stone-boiling; and (6) allowing processing of foods containing toxins or that otherwise could not have been incorporated into the diet without prolonged soaking or cooking (e.g., Arnold, 1985, pp. 127-135, 232-233). Related to this last point, geophagyingestion of earth, especially clayis widely known in human populations (and also among primates). The cause of this behavior is not definitely known, although many explanations have been offered (see Abehsera, 1990; Bicca-Marques and Cale-

Origins of Pottery

garo-Marques, 1994, p. 8): to alleviate mineral (including salt) deficiencies; to detoxify certain compounds, enhancing protein absorption; to aid digestion; to eliminate digestive disorders; and as a response to internal parasite infestations.6 Clays' role in detoxification is a consequence of their wellknown adsorptive properties.7 Geophagy has been associated with human consumption of potatoes to bind or eliminate the bitter taste of glycoalkaloids (Johns, 1989, pp. 513-514; see also Browman and Gunderson, 1993). Clay-eating was practiced among Native Americans in the southeastern United States and in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century northern Florida, the Timucua ate both dirt and broken pottery in times of famine (Swanton, 1979, pp. 243, 280, 281; see also Levi-Strauss, 1988, p. 175). As Vitelli (personal communication, 1997) suggests, pottery fragments might have absorbed fats or other nutrients from prior use in food preparation. In the Southeast, the ingestion of clays and earth also may have helped eliminate tannins present in acorns and other nuts that were commonly eaten. Early usage of low-fired or sun-baked pottery could have inadvertently, but salubriously, contributed clay to the diet. One conclusion commonly drawn from all the culinary considerations [as well from widespread myths (Levi-Strauss, 1988)] is that pottery was, as Childe avuncularly explained, invented by women. According to LonMany plants, especially tropical forest plants, contain significant quantities of secondary biocompounds such as lectins, alkaloids, cyanogenic glycosides, and polyphenols, which are evolutionary adaptations as defenses against herbivory (see, e.g., Janzen, 1985). While some of these may be desired as stimulants or hallucinogens, others may be unhealthy or poisonous, e.g., tannins and toxins. Tannins are large, complex molecules present in about 80% of woody perennials; they "reduce the digestibility of plant tissue by complexing with starch, proteins, or herbivore enzymes . . ." (Barbour et al., 1980, p. 104). Toxins, which are small molecules typically in annual plants, are far more deadly, as they "interfere with nerve and muscle activity, with hormone activity, or with liver or kidney functions" (ibid.). These biocompounds may be present either in the entire plant or in certain parts of it, such as leaves, stems, or roots. Furthermore, the strength of the compound may vary with the age of the leaves (young leaves having less) and it also may vary with diurnal cycles: "The quantity of alkaloid within plant bodies has its highest value in the early morning, and declines during the day. Following its daily cyclic rhythm, toxicity starts to accumulate again in the evening" (Kano, 1992, p. 104). Inhabitants of the Amazonian tropical forest may collect certain plant products, such as the bark of the tree Virola theiodora (Myristicaceae; nutmeg family), in the early morning in order to prepare a psychoactive snuff (Schultes and Raffauf, 1990, p. 333). Toxic compounds are particularly common in certain leaves, legumes (see Kislev and Bar-Yosef, 1988, p. 176), and roots/tubers (e.g., manioc, potatoes) (see Stahl, 1984). 7 Clay minerals readily interact chemically with organic materials in several ways (see Lagaly, 1984). Clays' adsorptive properties result from their chemical and mineralogical composition, i.e., their cationic (or base) exchange capacity, which in turn is enhanced by their layered structure, small size, and plate-like shape. Many clay minerals, particularly "expanding lattice" clays, have unfilled negative electrical charges on surfaces and edges of particles and between layers. Cationsespecially Mg, Ca, etc.can occupy these loci. These "absorbent" properties have long made clays useful in modern industry as thickeners, gelling agents in lubricants, binders, fillers, decolorizers, and strengthening agents. They are currently exploited in pollution control for adsorbing biocides, clearing water, and so forth (e.g., Singh et al., 1996).



gacre (1995, p. 278), ". . . Pottery was invented by women and remained a woman's technology for millennia. . . . pottery is one of the few technologies controlled by women." Hoopes and Barnett (1995, p. 6) elaborate further: "Women, as gatherers and as the individuals most closely associated with households, might also have been closer to the technologies and materials for making pottery and better able to organize the diverse tasks necessary for manufacturing ceramics." [Additional support for this general position comes from Sassaman (1993), Skibo and Schiffer (1995), and Vitelli (1995, p. 61, 1998); but see also Crown and Wills (1995, p. 248) and Wright (1991, n. 6).]8 Several lines of reasoning have prompted growing skepticism toward culinary hypotheses of pottery origins (see Vitelli, 1989) and the associated functional/adaptationist rationales. Culinary explanations illustrate the common tendency among anthropologists and archaeologists (or at least among Anglo-Americans) to adopt an ethnocentric, Western perspective in looking at technology, especially at its origins. In this view, various technologies whether agricultural, stone tools, or ceramicswere developed because the advantages they presented were self-evident to early humans (Pfaffenberger, 1992). More importantly, traditional "Neolithic revolution" scenarios simply do not "work" to explain pottery origins. Although it was noted many decades ago that agriculture, sedentarization, and pottery making are independent phenomena (Childe 1936, p. 89; Linton, 1944, p. 379), it has continued to be difficult to disentangle questions of pottery origins from those of both emerging food production and sedentary village life. Resource Intensification. A third explanation for the origin of and need for pottery containers is suggested by theories attempting to explain changes in subsistence strategies during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene transition. Such theories elaborate concepts of intensification (see Morrison, 1994) among hunter-gatherer groups, and they are built on observations and expectations concerning resource abundance, distribution, seasonality, and the human response of increasing sedentarization. The most influential of these hypotheses addresses agricultural origins, and is focused on complex hunter-gatherers occupying resource-rich environments at the close of the Pleistocene. Hayden (1990) postulated that intensified

Despite the overwhelming popularity of the position that women invented pottery, I am concerned that we are unwittingly promulgating current western stereotypes about who does the hunting and who does the gathering and who "controls" certain technologies. If the earliest clay containers and other objects were associated with ritual and/or shamanic control of production, manufacture could have been by either sex. In some societies today, men cook the foods for men's ceremonies and may also make the pots in which the food is cooked. With regard to late Pleistocene/early Holocene times, of course, we know very little about the differentiation of any gender roles. In this context, it is unclear what significant research question has been asked for which "pottery was invented by women" is a meaningful answer.

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exploitation of selected, highly productive resources (seeds, shellfish, etc.) by these semisedentary groups was accompanied by the emergence of socioeconomic competition on the part of certain "aggrandizing" individuals with "accumulative personalities." These individuals competed for power, prestige, and status by staging competitive feasts featuring rare and highly desirable foods. He concluded that
[t]he first domesticates should display qualities that can be construed as desirable for feasting. While this will vary according to the nature of local diets, and perhaps tastes, it can generally be expected that intoxicants, delicacies, dietarily deficient types of food, or any items conferring prestige would be prime candidates . . . (Hayden, 1990, p. 39)

Extended to pottery,9 Hayden's (1995, pp. 260-261) aggrandizer/competitive feasting model(s) can be considered to be a combination of the "culinary" and "symbolic" (see below) explanations, but with more robust (i.e., fewer post-hoc adaptationist) implications for the origins and wider adoption of pottery. Container technology would have played an important role as part of communal display on feasting occasions, primarily as vessels for holding and serving the featured consumables, whether fatty, oily, carbohydrate-rich, or alcoholic (or other) stimulants. This model also provides an indication where one might expect to find the earliest pottery: areas of resource abundance and generation of surpluses that supported large, semisedentary populations at the close of the Pleistocene. Several researchers have critiqued Hayden's original formulation and moved on to articulate their own expectations concerning the occurrence and functions of early pottery. Oyuela-Caycedo (1995), for example, suggests that intensification is based on adaptations to less predictable seasonality of resources during the climatic changes at the end of the Pleistocene. He suggests that this unpredictability would lead to reduced mobility (longer settlement around reliable resources) and, thereby, to socioeconomic intensification (including feasting and changes in food processing). Concerning pottery, he concludes that "pottery is just a tool that is invented or adopted to cope with resource scarcity . . ." (Oyuelo-Caycedo, 1995, p. 134). Hoopes (1995) sticks fairly closely to the Hayden model but suggests that pottery would have been particularly significant in areas

Not long before Hayden's "competitive feasting model" of agricultural origins was published, Goodyear made some observations on pottery origins in the southeastern United States that seem to be accommodated by this model (as well as by general "culinary theories"). Commenting on the association between early pottery and resource intensification, he (1988, p. 321, emphasis added) noted that "it might be more profitable to view the production of pottery among Late Archaic hunter-gatherers not as a minor addition to subsistence technology but as a manifestation of technological intensification in the area of calorie and nutrient extraction."



where subsistence strategies focused on r-selected resources (such as fruit, seeds, and shellfish) as opposed to K-selected species. In particular, he believes that pottery was singularly important in processing and serving fruits, oils, starches, and beverages from seasonally abundant tree crops, especially palms, for purposes of group feasts. A variant theory of resource intensification comes from Kelly (1991, pp. 145-146), who focuses on patchy or localized resource distributions. He asserts that as mobility declines (or sedentarization increases), storage becomes increasingly important, while at the same time significant changes take place in social relations among and between neighboring groups. In groups with high mobility a large number of individuals interact (via marriage, exchange, etc.) with individuals in other groups. Given restricted mobility, he argues, a reduced number of influential individuals come to dominate intergroup relations, and they control such relations through marriage alliances and/or feasting using stored resources. In such circumstances, it might be expected that decoration of pottery would be increasingly significant for asserting social identities and/or boundaries. Whatever the precise mechanism(s) leading to resource intensification, the aggrandizer/competitive-feasting model provides some expectations as to the characteristics of the early pottery containers used in feasting and the sites where they are found: Early pottery will appear in the context of seasonal occupations, rather than fully sedentary settlement.10 Early pottery vessels will appear (whether by invention or adoption) among complex hunter-gatherer groups as part of emerging social rank distinction. They would be expected to consist of special-purpose vessels, associated with accumulating, storing, preparing, and serving special foods; such foods might be carbohydrates in protein-rich environments or fats and oils in areas with predominantly starchy diets. Vessel capacities (either size or number of vessels) should be large, i.e., sufficient for storage, serving, and consumption of the contents.


Hoopes (1995, p. 196) concludes his survey of early pottery in Central America with a series of test implications about where early pottery might be expected to be found by archaeologists. At least three of these are more widely generalizable beyond tropical Central America: (1) pottery will first appear in the context of seasonal, rather than year-round, occupation; (2) by extension, early ceramic-bearing sites will represent only part of the total settlement system; (3) and there may be an "overlap" of preceramic/ceramic traditions at seasonal sites of interchange between mobile and more sedentary groups.

Origins of Pottery


Vessels used for serving feast foods might be expected to be decorated, bearing stylistic information pertaining to the "aggrandizer," his/her family, and/or larger social group.

Social/Symbolic Elaboration. This "theory" of pottery origins has developed out of renewed interest in the social organization of hunter-gatherers past and present (see reviews by Aldenderfer, 1993; Arnold, 1996; Bender, 1981; Cashdan, 1980; Gregg, 1991; Ingold et al., 1988; Layton et al., 1991; Myers, 1988; Sampson, 1988; Testart, 1988). A growing body of data is calling attention to symbolic elaborations in early complex (or nonegalitarian, or "transegalitarian") hunter-gatherer groups. For example, Moore (1995, p. 46, cf. 48; see also Hodder, 1988, p. 73) notes that epiPaleolithic unfired clay objects in western Asia and elsewhere are often figurines, miniature vessels, beads, spindle whorls, and the like, rather than "practical," utilitarian (e.g., culinary) apparatus. And Vitelli reminds us of the specialized knowledge of resources that was critical in hunter-gatherer life. Reflecting on the parallels of finding and gathering both plant materials and pottery resources, she (1995, pp. 61-62, in press) suggests that this knowledge of certain materials and transformationsplants, clay, firemay have been restricted to certain individuals such as shamans. Increasing complexity and/or seasonal aggregation of hunter-gatherer groups in certain regions may have been accompanied by exchange of exotics and the emergence of prestige technologies, including the production and use/display of identity- or ritual-specific objects made of clay and/or the emergence of specialists such as shaman-potters.11 The latter possibility gains support through the origin myths of many societies that ascribe magical powers to creator-beings whose creations are of clay (e.g., Quiche Maya Tzakol/Bitol). Along these lines, it is also important to note that significant amounts of very early pottery found around the world are well made and bear embellishmentoften quite elaborate embellishmenton the surfaces. This circumstance has drawn attention to possible symbolic functions of fired pottery containers in complex hunter-gatherer societies, and these functions

As Vitelli (1999) notes, shamans are likely to have knowledge of all manner of transformations that were, to them, predictable, but wondrous to ordinary people. Transformations involving fire might have been among the most mysterious and powerful of these; changes in objects of clay (changes in color; occasional explosions) could have been viewed as avenues of communication with higher powers and foci of ritual. An example of such rituals, perhaps quasi-divinatory, might be the late Pleistocene exploding Venus figures discussed earlier. Early "specialists" among hunter-gatherers could also include traders, as exotic goods such as shell and amber are known to have changed hands during the Upper Paleolithic (see White, 1992). A leading work on the role of trade and chiefly leadership is, of course, Helms' (1979) study of Panamanian chiefs.



have been interpreted in two ways. One is along the same lines as stylistic analyses of other artifacts in archaeology, i.e., using interaction theory, information theory, etc. (Plog, 1978; Wiessner, 1983; Wobst, 1977); the other is in the context of social intensification and feasting, as discussed above.

LOCATIONS OF RECOVERY OF EARLY POTTERY Finding the "earliest" pottery in any culture area is doubtless a logical and methodological impossibility, a "needle-in-a-haystack" problem. Given our current lack of comprehension of the precise circumstances leading to pottery manufacture, it has been difficult to predict where to look. In addition, the "competitive feasting" model suggests that early pottery might have had a restricted occurrence: "Its presence or visibility in activity areas should be limited as a consequence of the limited role it played as a new strategy for intensification" (Oyuela-Caycedo, 1995, p. 135). These considerations, coupled with ever-present questions of preservation of low-fired, porous wares, means that definitive claims for the earliest pottery made in any area will in all likelihood remain elusive. What is presented below is an area-by-area review of existing (published) evidence for very early pottery (as ascertained by associated radiocarbon dates), with no claim that these are necessarily the earliest ceramic materials ever produced in any of these areas.

Jomon, Japan Jomon pottery in Japan is widely claimed to be the earliest pottery (i.e., fired clay containers) in the world. Jomon settlement in Japan has been divided into a number of chronological periods; of interest to us here are the Incipient, Initial, and Early Jomon periods, from 12,700 to 5000/4500 b.p. (see Aikens, 1995; Bleed, 1978; Harris, 1997; Pearson, 1991).12 Some pre-Incipient Jomon pottery may exist, represented by plain, rounded-bottom jars. Better known is pottery from the Incipient period (ca. 12,700-10,000 b.p.) onward. On the southern island of Kyushu, two cave sites, Fukui and Senpukuji, yielded early pottery with applique deco12

A radiocarbon date (GaK-950) from pottery-bearing layers in Fukui cave in northwest coastal Kyushu yielded an age of 12,700 700 b.p. (Ikawa-Smith, 1976, p. 513, Table 1), while thermoluminescent dating of Jomon pottery suggests an age in the range of 7500 600 b.p. (Ichikawa et al., 1978, p. 175, Table 2) and fission track dating gave an age of 9800 b.p. (Ikawa-Smith, 1976, p. 513). For more complete information on dating Jomon, see Aikens, 1995).

Origins of Pottery


ration, followed stratigraphically by thumb-nail or bamboo impressions. Initial Jomon period (ca. 10,000-6000 b.p.) pottery exhibits surface decoration made by impressions of cords or cord-wrapped sticks (jomon = 'cord-marked') or by rouletting; in addition, plain pottery and "thin, small, triangular clay figurines" have also been found. Jomon pottery generally occurs as "small, deep, pointed- or roundbottomed pots," thin-walled and conical in shape (Harris, 1997, p. 24), perhaps copies of baskets. Hand built (usually coiled) and fired to ca. 600-900C, these vessels are believed to have been used for boiling foods (Pearson, 1991, p. 16). The pottery is commonly fiber-tempered in Early Jomon, though in later periods it was mineral-tempered (often with mica). From earliest times, most of the decoration appeared around the rim, culminating in the Middle Jomon period (4500-4000 b.p.), with its "flamboyantly shaped and sculptured pottery" (Aikens, 1995, p. 14). Jomon pottery-yielding settlements spread northeastward through the Japanese archipelago from Kyushu to Hokkaido. The earliest Jomon sites were caves and rockshelters, though coastal shell middens were widespread from the Initial period onward (Aikens, 1995, p. 13) and Initial period settlements have "villages" of semisubterranean dwellings (Harris, 1997, p. 23). Sites lack evidence for agriculture, although grinding stones were present (Aikens, 1995, p. 13).

China The earliest pottery known thus far in China is ca. 10,000-14,000 years old and has been found in several locations [except where indicated, the following data are taken from summaries of Chinese-language publications by Underbill (1997), and Wang (1995, personal communication)]. Surfacecollected materials from sites in the Alashan Desert of Inner Mongolia (Bettinger et al., 1994) in northern China indicate the presence of early Holocene pottery, perhaps as early as 11,000 years ago, but radiocarbon dates are lacking (Bettinger et al., 1994). In the middle Yellow River valley, the site of Nanzhuangtou yielded early pottery with seven associated radiocarbon dates ranging from 10,800-9700 b.p. Vessels are thick-walled and porous, with plain surfaces; some may be jars. To the southeast, in Jiangxi province, work by MacNeish and Chinese collaborators at Xianrendong and Wangdong Caves has reavealed early pottery in what they call the Neolithic 1 stage, dating to 14,000-11,200 years ago (Underhill, 1997, pp. 138-144). Cordmarked pottery appears in the following Neolithic 2 phase. Still farther south, in the lower Zhujiang River and coast, coarse-tempered, low-fired, cord-impressed early pottery has been found in levels with suites of radio-



carbon dates averaging 8000-9000 b.p. MacNeish (1992, pp. 160-163) refers to the subsistence pattern of the period in this area as one of foraging; middens show use of aquatic resources (especially shellfish). Pottery may have been independently invented in several areas of China, each due to different causes, and its occurrence seems to correlate with early evidence for increasing sedentarization (such as burials), reliance on cereals (grinding stones), and animal domestication (Underhill, 1997). More widespread in China is Neolithic pottery, which dates to ca. 7500-5000 years ago. This material is found in four major river valleys, on the coast, and on the islands of Quemoy and Taiwan. Evidence from coastal, island, and lower valley sites indicates hunting, fishing, and gathering subsistence economies emphasizing shellfish; interior sites along river valleys frequently exemplify simple village agriculture (MacNeish, 1992, pp. 160163), with taro and yams possibly cultivated. Although the pottery varies from region to region, it is commonly described as thick and low-fired (est. 700-950C), with mineral or more rarely organic tempering. Surfaces are typically given some plastic treatment, especially cord-marking, incising, or impressing, although painting also occurs (e.g., in the middle Yellow River valley). Common forms include bowls, jars, and tripods; large decorated urns are distinctive components in the Liaohe valley in northeastern China.

Western Asia
For several millennia before fired clay containers began to be made, clay was used in mud-brick architecture and to make beads and other ornaments, stamp seals, spindle whorls, figurines, "tokens," and so forth. Many of these items were unfired or only lightly baked; indeed, small, unfired cups, vases, and dishes made of untempered clay have been recovered from pre-pottery deposits. Moore (1995, p. 46) suggests that many of these early unfired clay objects "had symbolic significance for their makers" and were unlikely to have had utilitarian functions. As noted above, Vandiver (1987; see also footnote 4) refers to this dried or sun-baked pottery as marking a "soft stone technology" or "software horizon" (which also includes plaster technology). Virtually all the early pottery was formed by a single technique, widely used in western Asia, called "sequential slab construction." This can be related to architectural constructional sequences of building with mud bricks or adobe (Vandiver, 1987, p. 29). Throughout western AsiaAnatolia, Zagros, the Levant, and even farther west around the Mediterranean coastthe earliest fired pottery dates between ca. 8300 and 7900 b.p. (Moore, 1995, pp. 40-44; see also Cauvin, 1974). The inception of pottery was associated with a significant early-to-

Origins of Pottery


late Neolithic transition, and the "first potters were settled farmers who lived in villages" (Moore, 1995, pp. 44-45). Much of this pottery was found in two wares, one coarse and the other fine and decorated (often by painting or slipping); some was chaff-tempered.13 Vandiver's (1987, p. 10) analyses of this pottery suggested that "vegetal- or chaff-tempered coarseware [was] used for such utilitarian purposes as storing foodstuffs, cooking and other food preparation and serving."

Africa Recent reviews of data on early pottery in northern Africa (Close, 1995; Welsby, 1997) indicate that the invention of pottery probably occurred along the southern edge of the Sahara and/or the middle Nile valley (modern Sudan) sometime around the mid-tenth millennium before present. At that time, the Sahara region was a moderately well-watered grassland rather than a desert. The Nile valley would have been a particularly rich habitat; pottery-bearing sites are associated with intensive use of riverine resources and perhaps seasonally semisedentary hunter-gatherer occupation (Close, 1995, p. 31). The earliest (ca. 9500-8000 b.p.) known pottery (Khartoum Mesolithic) in the region had no apparent correlation with food production, although pottery commonly co-occurred with grinding stones.


Vandiver (1987) studied early western Asian fiber-tempered coarsewares to determine how the vessels were made. Her analyses incorporated xeroradiography, microscopy, and replication analysis using clays collected from archaeological sites [the clays were identified by X-ray diffraction and differential thermal analysis as montmorillonites (Vandiver, 1987, pp. 17, 30)]. It was determined that the vessels had highly variable amounts (5 to 25%, by volume, as measured by pores) of fiber temper, which were added as cut grass or straw rather than as masticated fibers from the dung of ruminants such as sheep or goats (p. 17). The resulting clay paste was "short" with a low yield point and low extensibility; it could not be coiled or thrown without delaminating from the fibers. The technique of manufacture was "sequential slab construction," which involves "building of vessels by stacking slabs on top of one another;" vessels usually had rounded bottoms and burnished and/or slipped surfaces (p. 18). This technique was "optimized" for working with montmorillonite clays, as the "software" clay body represented "a fiber-reinforced composite, much like fiberglass." Between 5500 and 4500 B.C. potters changed to a "grit-tempered clay body with entirely different working properties [which] freed the technology to adopt different forming methods . . ." and also required that the clay be aged (p. 25). Sequential slab construction was found to be "an optimal but conservative technology" (p. 18) that was widespread over much of the Near East and eastern Mediterranean region (p. 20). Later change or technological innovation, such as the use of mineral temper, occurred "not by trial and error, but by analogical reasoning, that is, by modification of what is [already] being done successfully to serve a new purpose" (p. 27). Vessel function (i.e., morphotechnological and "performance characteristics") was not given extensive consideration in Vandiver's analysis.



As to appearance, some of this early African pottery consisted of "simple vessel forms" that were "extensively decorated" with comb or cord impressions or rocker stamping in a variety of motifs (Close, 1995, p. 26). Burnished surfaces appeared late, after ca. 6000 b.p. In the middle Nile (Welsby, 1997, pp. 28, 30), Mesolithic and Neolithic pottery was built by coiling, the walls getting thinner through time; clays were tempered primarily with mineral temper but also sometimes with chaff. In general, early north African pottery tended to be so well formed and fired [to temperatures of ca. 800-900C (Welsby, 1997, p. 28)] that researchers feel it "must have been preceded by a lengthy (though as yet undiscovered) period of development," perhaps in what is now the Sahelian zone (Close, 1995, p. 26). As to vessel uses, little is securely known. In the eastern Sahara and Tadrart Acacus, sherds were generally scarce (Close, 1995, pp. 28, 30): there were "not enough potsherds for pots to have had regular importance in cooking, storage, holding water, or, indeed, any other everyday affair" in these areas, and "Their significance is more likely to lie within the social and symbolic spheres . . . ." In the middle Nile valley, however, pottery occurred so abundantly as to suggest that "pottery was used in some important and common practice(s)" (Close, 1995, p. 31). Forms include globular jars, wide-mouth bowls, dishes, beakers, and colanders, all commonly with rounded bases (Welsby, 1997, pp. 30-31). Some of these vessels were probably used for storage, especially of fats or oils, or for processing mollusks (Caneva, 1983; Clark, 1989). Others, such as the distinctive Neolithic "calciform beakers," narrow vase-like vessels with pointed bases, wide outflaring rims, and rocker-stamped decoration, appear to have been made for funerary use (Welsby, 1997, p. 31).

South America In the western hemisphere, the earliest pottery known thus far comes from eastern tropical South America. Excavations into shell middens at Taperinha and Caverna da Pedra Pintada, in interior Amazonia, yielded pottery-bearing strata with mean radiocarbon accelerator dates ranging from 7580 to 6300 b.p. (Roosevelt, 1995, Table 10.2; also Roosevelt et al., 1991). Vessels at Taperinha were small, low-fired, sand-tempered bowls or tecomates, some sooted; ca. 3% had complex incised rim decoration (Roosevelt, 1995, pp. 125-126). As indicated by faunal remains, the subsistence economy was one of "intensive foraging on small, abundant riverine species" including freshwater mussels, turtles, and catfish; plant remains are rare (Roosevelt, 1995, p. 126). Pottery from Pedra Pintada is similar

Origins of Pottery


except for decorative variation; in addition, Roosevelt (1995, p. 128) credits Vandiver with the observation that the pottery was formed "out of clay patches rather than from clay rings." Other sites in the Amazonian region also yielded early pottery, but not as early as that from Taperinha and Pedra Pintada. Sites of the Mina phase, near the mouth of the Amazon River in Para, Brazil, had potterybearing layers yielding radiocarbon dates of ca. 5500-3500 years ago (Roosevelt, 1995, p. 118). This pottery, which comes from deep shell mounds in an estuarine environment, consists of plain, simple bowl shapes with shell and sand inclusions (ibid.). Shell-mound sites along the coast of Guyana yielded sand- and shell-tempered plain pottery, the dates of which ranged from nearly 6000 to 4100 b.p. (Roosevelt, 1995, p. 120; see also Williams, 1997; Roosevelt, 1997). Very early pottery also has been found in the lower Magdalena river basin on the Caribbean side of northern Colombia; a suite of radiocarbon dates indicates that pottery was made as early as 5940 b.p. (Oyuela-Caycedo, 1995, pp. 136-137). The earliest pottery had fiber temper, which was later (ca. 4600 b.p.) replaced by sand, grog, and shell tempering (see also Rodriguez, 1995). Many of the sites located in estuarine and riverine environment are shell middens and represent seasonal occupations by huntercollectors (Rodriguez, 1995). The recently excavated inland site of San Jacinto 1, Colombia, is believed to have been a long-term seasonal base camp for an extended family with a subsistence economy based on collecting rhizomes and seeds of wild grasses and hunting deer, tapir, and small animals (Oyuela-Caycedo, 1995, p. 139). Pottery from Stratum 9 was fiber-tempered, and consisted of bowls, spouted jars, and neckless globular jars with lug handles (ibid.). While more than 95% of the pottery was plain, the few sherds with incised, impressed, and modeled decoration exhibited striking diversity (Oyuela-Caycedo, 1995, p. 139, Table 11.3). Comparison of the distribution of the pottery against distribution of fire-cracked rock suggested that the two were not related in terms of cooking activities (Oyuela-Caycedo, 1995, pp. 140-141).

Central and North America From these tropical regions of South America, techniques of pottery making and usage seem to have spread throughout the hemisphere, most dramatically northward through the Central American isthmus and Mesoamerica. In addition to the 6000 b.p. pottery from northern Colombia, Valdivia pottery from coastal Ecuador dates some 5300 years ago (Damp and Vargas, 1995). In Panama, reevaluation of the Early Ceramic Mona-



grillo complex from the Parita Bay area on the Pacific coast suggests dates ranging as early as 4900 b.p. (Cooke, 1995), while early ceramics from sites around Lake Arenal in northern Costa Rica date as early as 3700 b.p. (Hoopes, 1994, 1995, p. 187). Farther to the north, in Mesoamerica, early pottery has been found at sites in the moist Pacific lowlands as well as in dry highland valleys beginning about 3800 to 3600 years ago (Brush, 1965; Clark and Gosser, 1995; Flannery and Marcus, 1994). The clear south-to-north sequencing of these dates has prompted some disagreement as to the role of diffusion in the spread of pottery. Individual researchers have argued for indigenous innovation in each situation, on the basis of technical and stylistic differences (e.g., Damp and Vargas, 1995; Hoopes, 1995). It is far more likely, however, as Clark and Gosser (1995) have suggested, that this is a situation of adoption or "reinvention" of pottery. More specifically, they describe the spread of pottery making throughout Central America and into Mesoamerica as an example of 'dependent invention.' This variant of stimulus diffusion involves the acceptance of ideas and technical knowledge by a borrowing group and the technology's rapid application and modification in ways foreign to its use by the donor group" (Clark and Gosser, 1995, p. 209). In North America, early pottery is best known from three areas: the southeastern United States, the southwestern United States, and the Midwest. In the Southeast, early pottery has been found along coastal and riverine areas of Georgia and South Carolina beginning around 2500 B.C. The pottery is fiber tempered and often occurs in open, flat-bottomed shapes resembling soapstone basins also used in the area (see Sassaman, 1993, 1995; also Jenkins et al., 1986). Shortly thereafter, around 2000 B.C., pottery began to be widely adopted in the Gulf coastal region of the Southeast. In the Southwest, unfired clay figurines and other items (including small conical objects ca. 3 cm long) were found in Early Archaic cave deposits in southeastern Utah (Coulam and Schroedl, 1996). These may be part of a broader pattern of manufacture of fired and unfired clay objects in the Southwest, similar to that in Eurasia. Containers apparently were adopted later (between 400 B.C.-A.D. 150 in southern Arizona) and are associated with pithouses and seasonal (winter) occupation. Vessels, very small bowls or jars, are untempered, manufactured by pinching or coiling, and have been recovered primarily from "big houses." A ritual function was suggested by ethnographic analogy: the drinking of saguaro wine in small individual containers (gourd cups) at the onset of summer rains and beginning of the agricultural cycle (Heidke and Stark, 1996, pp. 8-9). Pottery containers were adopted relatively late in the midwestern United States, dating to the Early Woodland period (ca. 700 B.C.). In shape and surface treatment these vessels hint at ties to pottery from areas to

Origins of Pottery


the south and east (see Emerson, 1986; Brown, 1986, p. 600). In contrast, pottery in northern North America had many formal similarities with late Paleolithic pottery in Eurasia, leading Linton (1944, p. 372) to suggest the possibility of diffusionary origins, but he provided no date range for this occurrence.

Overview What has been reviewed thus far concerning the kinds and locations of early clay use highlight some intriguing points. The earliest recovered evidence of clay manipulation, comprising a so-called "software horizon," consists of unfired or low-fired objects (such as figurines; typically noncontainer forms) usually found at sites in middle latitudes, some dating as early as the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. Early pottery containers are frequently found in low-latitude, coastal/riverine situations, often with indicators of nonsedentary and non-agricultural subsistence/settlement patterns. These vessels typically have plastic surface treatments, most commonly manipulations such as incising, punctation, impressing, rocker stamping, and cordmarking, but painting and slipping (usually with ferruginous pigments) can also be found. The question remains, Why pots? Do these shared general characteristics and circumstances of early clay vessels provide clues as to the origins of pottery? Why were gourds or baskets or stone bowls unsuitable or unsatisfactory for container-related activities in these situations? How do data pertaining to a "software horizon" relate to culinary hypotheses and other models (e.g., the "accumulator/feasting" model) vis-a-vis pottery origins versus spread and adoption of an existing ceramic technology?

EARLY POTTERY: THE CONTEXTS Physical Environment Worldwide, sites with early fired pottery containers share a number of features. One is location: such sites are commonly (though not invariably) located in warm, humid, often subtropical or tropical areas, at latitudes to about 38N. A related feature is that early pottery is often found in riparian environments, especially coastal or estuarine areas, and lower- to middle reaches of major river systems. It is important to consider the possibility that recovery of early pottery in these contexts could be an accident of preservation. Reid (1984), for



example, suggested that the spatial pattern of recovery of early fiber-tempered pottery in the United States was a function of climate, noting that the ware was highly susceptible to destruction by freeze-thaw cycles because of its open, porous texture. Indeed, the earliest pottery in the southeastern United States comes from south of the 25-cm maximum frost penetration isotherm (Skibo et al., 1989, p. 137). Subsequent laboratory experiments indicated that this pottery disintegrated not because of its high porosity but rather because of its low firing temperature (ibid., p. 141; see also Goodyear, 1988, p. 320). Regardless, whether the cause is porosity or firing, the results are the same: fiber-tempered pottery is susceptible to damage by freeze-thaw cycles. These circumstances raise nagging questions about the preservation of low-fired pottery everywhere, especially in light of the "software hypothesis." In some coastal and riverine areas, it might be expected that early low-fired clay containers would be more likely to be preserved in the alkaline environments of shellmounds rather than in acidic soils. But coastlines present other problems: many sites with early pottery might now be submerged as a consequence of Holocene sea-level rise. The significance of this is most dramatically highlighted by western Kyushu island (Japan), where early pottery was found at Fukui cave: 12,000 years ago sea levels were 30-40 m lower than today, meaning that the shoreline was 10-20 km distant from the present coast (Pavlu, 1996, p. 48). In addition, from the viewpoint of preservation considerations alone, unfired or low-fired pottery prototypes are most likely to be recovered in dry environments with their typically alkaline soils, especially warm, arid environments such as the southwestern United States (Morris, 1927), and western Asia and Egypt/Sudan (Close, 1995; Moore, 1995; Ochsenschlager, 1974). However, the cursory survey above suggests that warm, arid environments are not the primary locations where pottery's (i.e., containers') antecedents are found. Instead, as Goodyear (1988, p. 321) noted a decade ago, locations of recovery of early pottery in many areas of the world suggest "a strong environmental basis [for pottery origins] in riverine-estuary situations." The widespread low-latitude coastal/riverine occurrence of early pottery demands closer attention to these environments, and prompts some questions: Why is the earliest pottery found in these contexts? What about them might have stimulated an early need for fired clay containers? In general, low latitude tropical (i.e., between N and S latitude 2327') and adjacent subtropical zones exhibit more environmental diversity and less seasonal variation in temperature and rainfall than do higher latitudes today. What were these environments like during the Pleistocene/Holocene transition, the period of interest here in terms of the origins of pottery? Efforts to generalize are fraught with peril, given generally inadequate pa-

Origins of Pottery


leoclimatic reconstructions. Nonetheless, it seems that in parts of the Old World, such as saharan Africa and western Asia, the transition involved gradual warming and desiccation, such that some grassland environments became deserts. In the New World tropics, the opposite seems to have occurred, the variably drier and cooler climate of the late Pleistocene giving way to warmer and wetter conditions. Coasts are high-energy environments and subsume a variety of biotic zones (see Carter, 1988), including barrier islands, strandlines, intertidal zones, estuaries, lagoons, and mangrove zones, as well as adjacent terrestrial habitats. All of these vary in their productivity for human exploitation. In general, coastal regions are characterized by a high productivity, high resource biomass, relatively reduced seasonality, and high resource diversity (particularly when aquatic faunaincluding shellfish and mollusksare considered with waterfowl and terrestrial plants and mammals) (see Yesner, 1980). Riverine and lacustrine environments, like coastlines, are also rich, diverse, and relatively predictable in resources and have the advantage of fresh water; in addition, rivers are corridors for travel into the interior.
Subsistence and Sedentarization

A third shared feature of sites with early pottery concerns subsistence economy: sites typically yield evidence of subsistence based on hunting, collecting (seeds, fruits, etc.), and fishing or shellfishing. Many early potterybearing sites are shell-middens with evidence for "incipient cultivation" or simple horticulture, but they commonly lack convincing evidence for domesticated plants or animals. Part of this lack may result from warm, humid, environmental conditions and consequent limitations on preservation (or failure to recover such evidence). Nonetheless, this circumstance raises questions about container needs in these tropical/subtropical environments, and directs attention to the lifeways and foodways of early hunter-gatherers. Although, as noted, it is difficult to categorize area-specific paleoenvironments of the Pleistocene-Holocene transitional millennia, some general considerations may be posited. In terms of the subsistence needs of hunter-gatherers, tropical forests pose considerable risk (see Bailey et al., 1989; Eder, 1984; Piperno, 1989). While high diversity means more kinds of potential foods, the sources may be problematic: there are few highcalorie wild foods such as carbohydrates and many plants, especially their leaves, are toxic. Those plant foods that do exist are often widely dispersed, difficult to harvest, unpredictably productive (especially tree crops), and bear only small, hard-to-process edible fruits or seeds. At the beginning of the Holocene, however, tropical forests in the Americas are thought to have



exhibited lower species diversity than today, with larger areas of monotypic aggregations of plant species and greater terrestrial faunal biomass in nonarboreal, nonsolitary species. This might have made them more amenable to hunter-gatherer exploitation than they are at present. In contrast to the interior forests of the tropics, coastal, riverine, and lacustrine environments provide less subsistence risk because food resources are more predictable in terms of abundance and accessibility. All told, it would seem that optimal environments for human habitation in the tropics and subtropics, past and present, would be ecotonal: coastlines and lower reaches of river systems edged by forest. The high diversity, biomass, and predictability of these zones would have provided considerable dietary variety and corresponding needs for containers to function in varied processing activities. Similarly, these advantageous subsistence circumstances could have contributed in different ways to resource intensification and sedentarization. And this raises a fourth shared feature of early pottery sites: they typically lack evidence for full, year-round, permanent, sedentary settlement and housing, traits that were traditionally assumed to be necessary precursors to the widespread adoption of pottery. There is, however, substantial evidence for restricted mobility or semisedentary settlement. In many of the coastal and riverine regions where early pottery has been found, the settlement/subsistence system is more likely to have been one of long-term semisedentary foraging and collecting, perhaps with seasonal movements from riparian to interior campsites. Subsistence/settlement activities may have been similar to the following idealized scenario, which was advanced to explain the origins of agriculture in the temperate eastern United States. Smith (1992, pp. 282-283) hypothesized that during the Early Holocene (pre-7000 b.p.), hunter-gatherers exploited resources distributed fairly evenly along river valleys. Archaeobotanical and faunal assemblages from the small camps of these foragers indicate broad-based use of forest resources and pioneer plant species commonly associated with soil or forest-cover disturbance. During the Middle Holocene (7000-4000 b.p.), climatic changes and sea-level shifts transformed riverine and coastal regions, providing more varied and abundant disturbed habitats for pioneer plant colonization. The regular seasonal availability of these resources would have led to reoccupation and reuse of favored site areas "during the low water, late spring to early winter growing season." At the same time, human activity at these middens and/or shell mound camps would further disturb and chemically enrich the soils, providing " 'anthropogenic' habitat patches" for colonization by seeds of collected or opportunistic plant species. These enriched environments would have been likely sites for both cultivation/domestication of some

Origins of Pottery


plants as well as reduced mobility and sedentarization as the new cultigens began to yield storable surpluses. Keeley's (1988) cross-cultural survey of hunter-gatherer economies analyzed the interrelations among environment, sedentism, storage behavior, and socioeconomic complexity. Most important is the role of intervening demographic variables such as population density and pressure in correlations among these features. Specifically, correlations between population pressure and socioeconomic complexity are extremely high: ". . . population pressure is a feature of hunter-gatherers living in the more productive, more reliable environments rather than those inhabiting the poorer, more variable regions." Demographic consequences of environmental variationsparticularly seasonal variations in productivitycould be drastic: " . . . the greater amplitude of variations in carrying capacity in [poor, variable] environments . . . periodically trimmed populations . . ." (Keeley, 1988, p. 404). Population pressure per se is not a factor in continental climates where famine mortality is common (ibid,). But population density and sedentism are not directly related; instead, their relation is mediated by reliance on stored foods. Keeley (1988, p. 391) concluded that ". . . the highest population densities and most complex [hunter-gatherer] societies are situated in the least seasonal environments for their respective latitudes." Moreover, "... coastal groups tend to have higher densities than interior groups for any given latitude whether they are complex or not" (Keeley, 1988, p. 392). None of this means, however, that pottery, sedentarization, and food production can be completely dissociated. The notion of sedentarization in the absence of foodespecially cerealproduction has been slow to be accepted by archaeologists [witness reaction to Moseley's (1975) "maritime adaptations hypothesis" in the Andes (e.g., Raymond, 1981; Wilson, 1981)]. Reflection on recent case studies (e.g., Hoopes and Barnett, 1995) indicates that we must decouple these two issues if we are to understand the separate processes. But others (e.g., Close, 1995, p. 32; Moore, 1995; Welsby, 1997) continue to note the role of sedentism in both the innovation and adoption of fired clay containers. Mounting evidence reveals that the origins of three key components of the so-called Neolithic transition (sedentarization, agriculture, pottery) are to be found much earlier, during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene transition. They began with subtle adjustments to changing environments that prompted both intensified exploitation of new, often abundant, and storable foods in richespecially aquatichabitats, and restricted mobility, usually on a seasonal basis. At the same time, these early adjustments stimulated a Boserupian series of social and economic transformations, a kind of "socioeconomic intensification" in within-group and without-group



relations, resulting in emergent status distinctions. It was within this context that various kinds of technological intensification also began to occur, one of them being the inception of pottery. Why? How? Theories of resource intensification have not been fully explored with regard to their implications for the origins of pottery (for a first step, see Hoopes, 1995). Such exploration demands, on the one hand, detailed analyses of the features reviewed above: the environmental, social, and subsistence contexts in which pottery containers were first manufactured and used, and later recovered archaeologically. At the same time, it is necessary to evaluate the relations of clay, fire, and container needs by returning to notions of technological choice and function and examine the characteristics of the pottery itself.

EARLY POTTERY: THE POTS Pots as Tools Just as early ceramic-bearing sites share some features, so too does the early pottery found at these locations. Vessels are typically simple shapes such as wide bowls, deep bowls, necked and neckless jars, dishes, flat-based cylinders or rectangles, and "griddles." They are commonly (but not invariably) described as being relatively small, with diameters measuring ca. 15-30 cm. Wall thickness appears to be highly variable. The paste often has vegetal material, "grit," or "sand" inclusions. Exterior surfaces are frequently given some textural treatment such as incising, punctating, or impressing (especially cordmarking); paint and slips are generally relatively rare although there are some notable exceptions [e.g., red paint on some western Asian pottery (Moore, 1995, p. 42)]. The fact that much early fired pottery appears in coastal/riverine environments raises the possibility of an earlier software component, perhaps including simple containers, in these areas. If clays in coastal regions had fine particles of shell naturally present, these resources could have been unusually desirable: An early (1873) chemical analysis of shell-tempered "mound-builders' age" pottery from the midwestern U.S. revealed that the paste had the composition and properties of hydraulic cement (pozzolana or Portland cement): The investigator concluded that "the fragments of shells served the purpose of gravel or fragments of stone as at present used in connection with hydraulic lime for the manufacture of artificial stone" (quoted in Morgan, 1878, p. 15). Vessels formed of such a clay-shell paste might have hardened without being fired or if only low-fired.

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Early pottery frequently had organic matter present in the clay, variously identified (often from "casts") as grass, chaff, straw, Spanish moss, palm fibers, or other vegetal fibers. It is not always clear that such inclusions were deliberately added to the clay as temper, as opposed to being naturally or inadvertently incorporated. The general supposition is the former, though, and this material is commonly called "fiber-tempered" pottery. A series of experimental studies (Schiffer and Skibo, 1987; Skibo et al., 1989) investigated the performance characteristics of this organic-tempered pottery and compared them with properties of mineral-tempered and untempered wares. The goal was to understand better the role of fibertempered pottery in the southeastern United States (and indeed throughout eastern North America), where it began to be used about 4500 b.p. and continued until fibers were replaced by mineral temper (see also Sassaman, 1993). This low-fired pottery was tempered with grasses, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), or palmetto palm fibers and is found as small flaring bowls and jars with primarily flattened bases (Schiffer and Skibo, 1987, pp. 601-602; also Sassaman, 1993), possibly made using a slab technique (Skibo et al., 1989, p. 137). The researchers analyzed a large number of performance-related properties of experimentally produced fiber (i.e., manure-)tempered clay briquettes, including impact strength, resistance to abrasion and thermal shocking, heating effectiveness, and variations in weight and drying time. They found that fiber-tempered pottery is comparable to sandtempered pottery in thermal shock resistance, but less advantageous than mineral-tempered pottery in heating effectiveness, abrasion resistance, and drying time. The principal advantages conferred by fiber-tempering were that vessels were easy to manufacture (thereby allowing for an ad hoc or "expedient" ceramic technology) and light in weight (therefore easily portable), as compared to later pottery which was technologically better suited to heating effectiveness. A distinctive feature of all the unfired, sunbaked, or low-fired objects, whether containers or other items, is their apparently high "green" (unfired) strength.14 Unfired clay objects typically are less able to withstand

Green strength refers to the durability of a formed but unfired clay body, or, in other words, its resistance to mechanical stresses (compression, torsion, impact, etc.) without warping or failing (fracturing, abrading, etc.). Any object made of clay, whether fired or unfired, is brittle and will crack or shatter easily if dropped, given a sharp blow, or forced to support excessive weight. Unfired clay objects have less resistance to these stresses than fired ones do, since strength and hardness increase with firing. However, some clays naturally have a great deal of green strength as a consequence of particle size distribution (generally fine-sized), plus certain electrochemical properties (see Rice, 1987, pp. 69-70). Alternatively, green strength can be increased by adding of organic materials, such as flour, cornstarch, milk solids, and natural resins, or mineral inclusions (especially angular particles) to the clay, or by increasing the thickness of the clay.



the stresses of active handling than are fired ones. As a consequence, they are generally better suited to storage or immobile functions rather than to activities in which they will be frequently moved, handled, or subject to the mechanical stresses of processing food. Groups making extensive use of artifacts of sunbaked clay either had the advantage of living in areas with clays having a high natural green strength, or selectively made use of such clays rather than less desirable clays nearby, or modified their clays to increase green strength, perhaps by adding fibers.

Users One important direction in rethinking pottery origins consists of a reexamination of pottery manufacture and use among non- or semisedentary "hunter-gatherer" groups (see Bollong, 1994; Reid, 1989; Ridings and Sampson, 1990; Sampson, 1988; Sassaman, 1993). As noted (footnote 3), the term "hunter-gatherer" subsumes a great deal of variability in subsistence, settlement, and social strategies, and for purposes of attempting to retrodict any observations to prehistoric groups, it is probably useful to separate these analytically. That is, consideration of manufacture and use of clay containers should address both the relationship of pottery to group mobility (i.e., the practicality of bulky but fragile containers) as well as specific utilitarian and social needs for pots (food preparation, serving, and/or storage among non-food-producers) in different environmental settings. Once regarded as a sort of ethnographic oddity, it is now increasingly apparent that nonsedentary, nonagricultural peoples make frequent use of pottery. In an ethnographic sample of 862 societies, 103 (nearly 12%) were pottery-making, nonsedentary societies (Arnold, 1985, p. 120). This survey of nomadic, transhumant, and semi-sedentary groups concluded that a mobile existence affects pottery manufacture and use not primarily because of pottery's fragility. Rather, it was "because settlement impermanence limits the amount of time in one place needed to make pottery, can complicate obtaining suitable resources and may reduce opportunities for making pottery in a favorable climate" (Arnold, 1985, p. 119). Arnold goes on to assert that the reason pottery making is found among most of these non- or partially sedentary groups today is that they occupy regions that have a favorable climate for drying and firing pottery. A different reason is suggested by Bettinger et al. (1994, p. 95), who note a connection between ceramic cookware and intensity of land use in fuel-poor settings: pottery extends "the adaptive range of hunter-gatherers by increasing the utility of locally available fuels needed to prepare a broad spectrum of resources . . .,"

Origins of Pottery


which in turn "permits use of more marginal habitats and more intensive use of traditional habitats for longer periods ... ." Examples of pottery use by non-sedentary populations include the Bushmen, Ute, and Seri [see Skibo et al. (1989, p. 123) for references]. Karoo Bushman made "grass-tempered" pottery bowls decorated with stamp-impressed motifs (seven motif groups); these date to A.D. 1500-1800 (Ridings and Sampson, 1990). Elsewhere, objects of unfired, sun-dried clay can be found in parts of Papua New Guinea (May and Tuckson, 1982, p. 7) and among Bedouin pastoralists (see above; Ochsenschlager, 1974). In northern North America, available ethnographic descriptions of pottery used by hunter-gatherers15 indicate that it was tempered with sand, grit, or crushed rock and supported by organic materials while drying; vessels had thick walls and were flat-bottomed or bucket-shaped with wide mouths; and they were generally sun-dried, low-fired, or baked (i.e., "subceramic") (Reid, 1989, p. 171). The interior and exterior surfaces were often given a fatty coating, and pots were used to cook meat or fish and render oils or fat (ibid.). These ethnographic observations, together with discoveries of early pottery from sites in two hemispheres, indicate that use of low-fired or unfired clay utensilsa "software horizon"may be more widespread than recognized in prehistoric times. Straw- and chaff-tempered unfired "mud" objects among the Bedouin of southern Iraq had surprisingly long use-lives: "a mud vessel would last anywhere from a year to six and a half years if well taken care of" (Ochsenschlager, 1974, p. 164). The Bedouin never take the unfired clay objects with them when they move to new camps, though (ibid., p. 165). Forms included ovens, incense burners, braziers, griddles (for baking rice bread), dishes, storage jars, grain mills, mortars and pestles, jewelry for the dead, and toys (ibid., pp. 165-172). Six types of "mud" containers have been recovered from excavations into Early Dynastic contexts at the site of al-Hiba (ibid., p. 173).

Uses Specific uses of early pottery rarely are discussed nor are data commonly provided to facilitate such determinations. In line with prevailing

In northern North America, pottery was used by the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Plains Cree, Northern Saltaux, Kaska, Kutchin, Tanana, Tainana, Blackfoot, Kutenai, Sarsi, Ingalik, and Koyukon and various Eskimo groups (Reid, 1989, p. 170; also Stimmell and Stromberg, 1986, p. 247). Linton discussed this northern pottery tradition at length, concluding that it was "an integral part of various hunting, food-gathering cultures, and the vessels it produced were structurally and functionally adapted to the needs of nomads" (1944, p. 379).



culinary views of the origins and spread of pottery, the three most general categories of vessel function focus on food: its processing (especially cooking), storage, and transport (especially sewing). Cooking. In considering uses of pottery by hunter-gatherers, Reid (1989, pp. 168-170) summarized observations about two types of cooking processes. One type is dry heating, such as broiling, roasting, baking, and parching. Dry heating is particularly suited to meats, requires temperatures from ca. 150 to 625C, and often results in loss of much of the nutritive value of meats. Another type of cooking is moist heating, such as simmering, boiling or stone-boiling, and steaming. These methods require lower temperatures (ca. 85-100C) and are used for preparing stews and soups, rendering oils, and boiling starchy seeds to make them digestible. Cookingespecially boilingplaces considerable stress on a pot, particularly thermal and mechanical stresses. Cookpots must be able to withstand sudden changes in temperature and low porosity is usually desirable to reduce these thermal stresses. At the same time, however, pots should have low permeability if cooking liquids is the intended use. These interrelated properties of porosity, permeability, and thermal stress resistance can be manipulated by selection of raw materials and by manufacturing decisions such as shape and surface treatments. To judge from generally inadequate published descriptions, the properties of early pottery suggest they may have been reasonably well suited to cooking (see Linton, 1944). Described as having simple contours, usually with rounded or pointed bases, and a gritty or friable paste with primarily sand or fiber temper, the pots would have been porous and hence able to withstand thermal shocking. Applying a materials engineering perspective to infer usage of fiber-tempered vessels, Reid (1989, p. 174) drew an implicit analogy between modern hunter-gatherer pottery and prehistoric fiber-tempered wares. He suggested that highly porous, underfired or subceramic vessels provide relatively good insulation but poor heat conductivity, and hence are better suited for "stone boiling" than for placement over a fire. The flat-bottomed vessels sometimes reported are particularly interesting, given that corners are stress points that may lead to uneven heating and/or cracking (see Woods, 1986). These vessels may have been used for stone boiling or in dry cooking over fires to parch seeds and grains, or as griddles for toasting starchy doughs. Roughening the surface of a cookpot by cord marking, impressing, punctation, and so forth, would have aided handling of heavy, full vessels when hot or wet and, also, may have further aided heat transfer and thermal shock resistance (see Rice, 1996, pp. 141-142; Schiffer et al., 1994). The apparent thickness of the vessel walls of much of this pottery may have reduced heat transfer or caused thermal gradients during drying of

Origins of Pottery


the newly made pots in humid environments, during initial firing, and during use over a fire. These disadvantages might have been compensated by the greater mechanical stress resistance (reduced fragility) of thick-walled vessels, even in the unfired state: a decided advantage for use in stoneboiling. Since all pottery represents compromises between the needs and characteristics of available resources, design, manufacturing technology, and usage (see Schiffer and Skibo, 1997), in the case of cooking with these pots potential problems caused by wall thickness may have been offset by relatively high porosity and strength. There is little mention of sooting on this early pottery (cf. Ikawa-Smith, 1976; Roosevelt, 1995, p. 126; Sassaman, 1995), but whether sooting was genuinely absent or simply not recorded by investigators is unknown. Perhaps the vessels were used not for "direct cooking" over a fire but, rather, for "indirect cooking" (stone boiling). The use of stone-boiling cooking strategies is often identified archaeologically by the presence of fire-cracked stones (although these can also indicate pit-roasting). Fire-cracked rock antedates pottery at coastal sites in Japan (Ikawa-Smith, 1976, p. 514), for example, and early Jomon pots in Japan were described as "cooking pots." Similarly, early pottery in the American Midwest, adopted quite late in the history of the craft (rarely before ca. 700 B.C.), was probably used in stoneboiling (Braun, 1983). On the basis of their experiments with various tempering materials, Schiffer and Skibo (1987; also Arnold, 1985, p. 128), concluded that pottery was most likely adopted "because cooking in a pot even if it took the form of stone boilingwould require less attention than cooking in skins or with hot rocks in baskets ... the cooking pot may have represented a technological simplification . . . [that] freed busy hands for more demanding tasks." In other words, the relationship was not with cooking or food per se but rather with time and labor investment in "tending" the cookpot. Cooking could have been a primary function of early pottery in various environmental situations and for various subsistence strategies. For example, pottery could have been a particularly advantageous technology for broad-spectrum forager-collectors exploiting diverse foods that often might be available in only small and uncertain quantities. Pottery cooking containers are particularly useful for foods that are small (e.g., beans, grains, shellfish), must be cooked in water (e.g., dried/stored foods, tough/unpalatable items like meats, vegetal foods), and require a sustained simmer or boil. Furthermore, clay pots are especially suited for preparing soups, stews, and chowders, which maximize nutrient extraction by retaining juices and flavors, and permit recycling of leftovers, discards, and scraps. In so doing, they allow many people to be nourished from what might otherwise be



insufficient food. An additional advantage is that pottery cooking vessels can be left untended for appreciable periods. Considering that the above survey suggests that early pottery was frequently recovered from coastal/riverine sites, it is important to understand subsistence in this environmental context. The wide distribution of shellmidden sites in low-to-mid-latitude coastal and riverine locations throughout the world in late Pleistocene/early Holocene times testifies to the importance of shellfish in the dietary adaptations during these millennia. The early presence of pottery at such sites raises the question of why pottery and mollusks should co-occur. Summaries of the significant features of shellfish subsistence (Erlandson, 1988; Yesner, 1980, pp. 729, 730) emphasize that shellfish are highly concentrated and highly predictable (though often seasonal) and can withstand high harvest rates. They require little energy or technological investment to harvest, and are therefore exploitable by all sex/age groups, especially by women and children (see also Claassen, 1991). All of these characteristics encourage extended or semisedentary long-term settlement in areas of shellfish beds. While shellfish are probably most valuable for their protein contribution to the diet (Erlandson, 1988), it is also important to note that they are low in calories and vitamins, have high shell-to-meat ratios, and require substantial processing time (Osborn, 1980, p. 740). Pottery has advantages for people with a diet heavy on shellfish and mollusks, particularly smaller bivalves such as clams, which open automatically with heat. Heating quantities of them in a pot lowers the labor investment in processing. Given the relatively low protein and caloric yield of these foods, boiling prevents loss of nutrients from juice or meat of the cooked shellfish, as might occur if they were roasted in an open fire. At the same time, in considering the dietary patterns of peoples occupying sites yielding evidence of early pottery, especially shellmidden sites, the role of plants and their processing as key elements of the subsistence system should not be overlooked. Plant foods add necessary calories, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fiber to the diet, as well as having medicinal uses. The starchy seeds of wild grasses can be groundand grinding tools are sometimes found at these early ceramic-bearing sitesand then shaped into cakes for toasting on clay griddles or boiled into gruels or porridge in pots. Botanical assemblages from shellmidden (and other) contexts commonly include millet-like seeds of panicoid grasses, such as Setaria and Trianthema. These are weedy, pan-tropical grasses that are particularly common in wet or humid environments, and can be gathered in large quantities. Other common seeds at shellmound sites in the southeastern United States include chenopodium, knotweed, maygrass, marsh elder, and sunflower (Claassen, 1991, p. 292). Roots and tubers (e.g., manioc, taro, yam) are

Origins of Pottery


also found in shellmiddens, and these foods could have been boiled in early pots. Besides cooking, pottery could also have been employed in storage of these vegetal foods, especially seeds, perhaps preceded by drying. The dietary importance of starchy seeds, roots, and tubers relative to mollusks at coastal/riverine shellmidden sites has not been thoroughly assessed yet but seems to have been underestimated. Intensive reliance on wild grains could have been a "preadaptation" laying the groundwork for later easy acceptance of domesticated cereals into the dietary and technological patterns of these societies (MacNeish, 1992; Smith 1989). And as Brown (1989, p. 220) pointed out, the boiling of starchy grains, more than any other food, places stress on pottery:
Cereal grains, in particular, subject vessels to heavy breakdown through the heat stress on the walls because the sustained boiling which is necessary for breaking down cereals into edible starch (Braun, 1983) will inevitably hasten the eventual break-up of vessels. Thus, a commitment to cereal-grain farming should hasten the adoption of pottery, if it has not already been incorporated into the container technology.

Wild grasses are extremely nutritious and reliable foods, making them especially important in marginal areas (see Close, 1995, p. 28) or during seasonal scarcities. But wild cereals are extremely tedious to process (dehusking and grinding) and may not have been "attractive" foods except in times of stress (Wright, 1994, p. 257). Archaeological and ethnographic parallels support the notion of increased emphasis on seed use during dry periods. Perhaps the origins of pottery can be related to intensified use of low-ranking foods such as grains during times of scarcity or drought, rather than as part of intensive use of overexploited favored foods. Finally, in tropical and subtropical regions, and especially in coastal/riverine areas, dietarily important plants were not only seeds and grasses but also tree crops, especially palms (see Hoopes, 1995). Fruits and nuts could have been used to make fermented beverages and oils, foods that would have been especially valued in feasting activities and, in the case of oils at least, relatively difficult to obtain otherwise in the environment (although fish and turtles are alternative sources). Clay pottery vessels would have been important in the manufacture of these substances because of their greater capacities (as compared to gourds, for example) and because the application of heat would have facilitated extraction of oils. The oils, in turn, could have sealed the pores, rendering the vessels watertight. In the shellmiddens of Florida and the Caribbean, large quantities of seeds of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) are frequently recovered; while the fruit of the palmetto is not especially tasty, the seeds are highly nutritious and very oil-rich [(Lee Newsom, personal communication, 1997); see Hoopes



(1995), for a discussion of the use of palm seeds such as pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes), coyol (Acrocomia mexicana), and others]. In temperate areas, the late eighteenth-century Chickasaw (southeastern United States) fried bear fat "into clear well-tasting oil, mixing plenty of sassafras and wild cinnamon with it over the fire, which keeps sweet from one winter to another, in large earthen jars, covered in the ground" (Swanton, 1979, p. 372, quoting Adair). Similarly, Goodyear (1988, p. 321; see footnote 9) called attention to the importance of pottery containers for boiling deer bones to extract the grease. Storage. Storage of dry goods places few physical demands on pottery, either in terms of vessel shape or paste composition. Depending on whether storage is intended to be long- or short-term, and how frequently the contents are used, the primary considerations are capacity, permeability, and accessibility (orifice size). These properties in turn are manipulated primarily by manufacturing processes (shaping, finishing) rather than by selection of raw materials. The possible role of early pottery in storage usesindeed, the whole role of storage in hunter-gatherer societiesis difficult to assess. For food storage to be an important component of the subsistence economy, resources must be both seasonal (making storage necessary) and abundant (making it possible) (Rowley-Conwy, 1982, p. 533).16 Food storage is said to increase with latitude (Yesner, 1980, p. 729; but cf. Keeley, 1988), being rare in the tropics and subtropics (below ca. 28 N latitude); this is presumably because of generally increasing seasonality at latitudinal extremes, different subsistence bases (kinds and amounts of plants versus animals), and rates of spoilage. One analysis (Testart, 1982) claimed that the role of storage among nonagricultural peoples is greatly underestimated and postulated the existence of two broad categories of hunter-gatherer subsistence economies, "storing" and "nonstoring." "Storing hunter-gatherers" are primarily fisherfolk and plant gatherers living in areas of strong seasonality in resource availability and distributed over the high and medium latitudes (Testart, 1982, p. 528; see also Renouf, 1991; Keeley, 1988). They are characterized by semi-sedentary settlement and the accumulation of a variety of portable artifacts. Storing hunter-gatherers tend to be absent in deserts and in tropi16

Lustig-Areco's (1975) comparative study of the subsistence technology of foragers (Tiwi and Eskimo), pastoralists (Tibetans and Chukchi), and simple farmers who also hunt/fish (Ao Naga and Kapauku Papuans) is relevant with reference to storage devices. The Point Barrow Eskimo had nine storants, including long-term "structures," while the Tiwi had only six storants and none were for long-term storage. The Ao, who grew rice, had eight short- and long-term storants, while the Kapauku, who cultivated yams, had two short-term storants and one "long-term structure" (a feast house). The two pastoralist societies, located at high altitude or high latitude, had seven to nine storants, both short- and long-term.

Origins of Pottery


cal lands: "In regions such as Mesoamerica or Southeast Asia ... it seems that there were never any storing hunter-gatherers" (Testart, 1982, p. 536). Similarly, groups in temperate interior (continental) climates away from reliable aquatic resources or stands of grasses "could not make the adaptive shift to a storage economy . . ." (Keeley, 1988, p. 402). In North America today, "storing hunter-gatherers" are found primarily in the Northwest coast, California, and nearby areas, areas where pottery was neither manufactured nor used. Why? Is this a question of preservation of the pottery [i.e., Reid's (1989; above)] argument? Hunter-gatherers with a "storing" (I prefer "accumulative") economy are of particular interest here, because it is they who seem to have been first to make use of pottery, whether for storage or other purposes. If we accept the proposition that food storage increases with latitude, whether because of seasonality or increasingly monotypic vegetal aggregations, then it is important to ask why the earliest pottery has been most commonly found in low-latitude, highly productive, coastal/riverine locations, in association with nonagricultural subsistence patterns. What about these circumstances might have given rise to a need for storage containers? One possibility concerns shellfish, which can be markedly seasonal in their occurrence. In the southeastern United States, freshwater mollusks are best eaten in fall, while in Denmark oysters are available in spring (Gebauer, 1995). Live shellfish cannot be stored for long periods, though they could be kept alive briefly in waterfor example, to carry them from the harvest site to the site of consumption. It has been suggested that in the Southeast, shellfish were steamed open and then the meat was dried and/or smoked and stored for later consumption during winter and spring (Claassen, 1991, p. 292).17 If this was a common practice in the American Archaic or in other shellfish-based economies, the advantages of pottery as a container for long-term storage are readily evident. Instead of storing dried shellfish, seeds or grains might have been stored. As noted above, weedy grasses are common in humid, disturbed sites and could have been gathered in quantity and stored. Alternatively, oils (of palm, turtle, fish, etc.) might have been extracted and stored in early clay vessels. Needs for water storage are highly variable. Water storage is unlikely to have been needed in riverine locations, but it may have been

Swanton (1979, pp. 377-378) referred to the eighteenth-century Natchez' method of preserving oysters by smoking: The shucked oysters were simmered in a kettle of water suspended over a fire until partially cooked. They were then drained, arranged on a grill over a fire, and smoked, first on one side then the other, until they turned a "yellow and golden color." They were stored in a "jar" or sack in the house; before eating, the dried oysters were soaked in water for an hour, then cooked. Elsewhere (p. 372), it is said that dried oysters could be kept for a year and were often traded. Since some of the tools used (kettles, jars) may be European introductions, so too may be the entire process.



more important in coastal areas, especially if rains were significant sources of fresh water. In the tropics, rainfall is often strongly seasonal and storage of rainwater or freshwater from other sources may have been necessary. But the function(s) of early pottery must also be considered in a broader cultural context apart from strictly dietary concerns. Given "the close, indeed nearly coterminous, relationship between storage dependence, sedentism, and relative population density" (Keeley, 1988, p. 397), it is important to remember that these processes led to the development of socioeconomic complexity among early hunter-gatherers. And from the viewpoint of the feasting and social models of pottery origins, it may be more appropriate to think in terms of pottery containers for short-term "accumulation" rather than long-term "storage." Serving. From the above observations, it might be argued that "transport" functions can be eliminated from consideration in analyzing the uses of early pottery. Although Stoltman (1972) and Goodyear (1988) point to the advantage of pottery to facilitate the live transport and subsequent boiling of small mollusks and shellfish, the aspect of "transport" that may have been more influential is serving, conveying food from cookpot to consumer. Like storage, serving functions place few technical demands on the potter or on the vessel other than manipulability, i.e., the ease and safety of handling a bowl or jar full of heavy, hot, and/or liquid contents. Manipulability is primarily enhanced by varying vessel size, shape, and weight, especially with the addition of handles, spouts, flanges, or feet. Here it is appropriate to return to intensification/feasting behavior and social/symbolic theories of the origins of pottery, to incorporate the concept of "social storage." "Social storage" refers to the "appropriation of materials in such a way that rights over their future distribution or consumption converge upon a single interest. In this sense, the store has to be considered ... as property or wealth, and storage as a concomitant of social relations of distribution" (Ingold, 1983, p. 561).18 So, too, the containers in which the stored materials are accumulated should be considered both wealth, particularly as they represent a prestigious new technology, and intrinsic components of social relations. In this context of social storage, food containers are significant in at least two ways. First, the surface treatment or decoration ("elaboration and personification") of food containers of semi-sedentary hunter-gatherers may be a function of their role in distribution and exchange, solidarity among local groups, and so forth (Ingold, 1983, p. 561). More specifically,

Ingold (1983, p. 563) notes that social storage can be considered to represent the "direct negation of sharing." In a sense this is true, but it could also be seen as adding value through time (as in modern commodities futures), especially if the ultimate use is in share-out.

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these incised or punctated vessels could have been prestigious vehicles for displaying and communicating messages of social identity, perhaps identifying the "owner(s)" who accumulated the goods and who generously shared them among members of the social group or to other groups. Second, containers could permit goods to be measured in standard units of volume, which could be advantageous in maintaining exchange relations. This would be especially important in exchange of relatively exotic items, and in areas with varied environments allowing specialized production or gathering of very different goods (Ingold, 1983, p. 562). The paucity of information on sooting and the generally small size of many of the reported early vessels support the suggestion that they may have been food-service utensils rather than cookpots. Small sizes may represent serving bowls for individuals or for families while larger vessels may have been used as containers for consumables used in community-wide feasts, such as alcoholic beverages, oils, or soups and stews.

DISCUSSION Intensive clay use began in multiple areas widely separated in time and space. In many regions there seems to be a lengthy gap between presumably prestige softwares and practical container technologies. For these reasons, models of the origins of pottery need to be couched in terms of various hypothetical technological levels or phases or processes, rather than as a simple linear sequence. Worldwide, and in all of human history, these stages are not necessarily chronologically or spatially discrete. Moreover, because of preservation problems and other factors, it is likely that no single site or area will provide evidence of a full developmental sequence. Similarly, it is likely that different triggering mechanisms may have operated in different areas, depending on the kind and abundance of favored resources (e.g., grains versus meats) and environmental conditions. Just as the processes involved in the transition to agriculture occurred differently in different areas (for example, comparing western Asia to Mesoamerica), so too may have the processes involved in the transition to pottery containers.

Software Horizon The earliest manifestations of clay use, a putative "software horizon," were part of the emergence of prestige technologies (Hayden, 1995, 1998) and the "invention of material forms of representation [that] went hand in



hand with a major social transformation across the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe" (White, 1992, p. 537). These European Upper Paleolithic "forms of representation" were important because, as White (1992, p. 540) notes, ". . . Choice of rare and exotic materials; labor-, skill-, and knowledge-intensive production; and metaphorical reference to valued or sacred subjects are virtually universal in their effectiveness in constructing meaning and communicating social identity . . . ." Material representations or "objectivations," past and present, are valuable because they endure beyond a human lifetime, thus playing an important role in social continuity; they may be linked with ancestors and thus assume political weight; and they can carry a variety of messages about individual or group affiliations (White, 1992, p. 541). An "early software phase" in the early history of clay/pottery is represented by unfired, sunbaked, or low-fired noncontainer objects of clay, thus far known primarily from the Upper Paleolithic of Europe. Fired and unfired clay animal and human figurines such as those at Dolni Vestonici and the unfired clay sculpture of a bison in a cave in France, are some of the examples of clay manipulation for early material representations. The actual functions of these objects are not clearly understood, but in Hayden's terms they would constitute very early prestige technologies and their use may have been primarily in ritual or to convey social identity. If we consider the early application of fire to these clay figurines as the beginning (albeit unsuccessful) of a ceramic technoscience, then it is important to acknowledge that this technology began in a nonutilitarian, noncontainer, and nonculinary realm. The Upper Paleolithic sites at which these early "objectivations" have been found very likely represent "seasonal aggregation sites characterized by intense levels of social, ceremonial, and exchange activities" (White, 1992, p. 555). More broadly, and over the course of millennia, such sites are probably to be found in areas of resource abundance and relatively high population densities. Near the end of the Upper Paleolithic, with warming climate, rising sea levels, and altered floral and faunal distributions, such rich areas were increasingly likely to have been along coasts and rivers and also in temperate interior grasslands. These are the kinds of situations in which we might find extended encampments and/or aggregation sites, probably seasonal, and the emergence of complex hunter-gatherer settlements. A second software subphase can be postulated on the basis of unfired or very low-fired, often fiber-tempered clay objects, known archaeologically from the Prepottery Neolithic period in western Asia and from the early or preceramic Archaic period in the New World. This subphase can be considered chronologically later than the first in Europe, although this is

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not necessarily the case given the variable times and ways in which the Pleistocene-Holocene transition proceeded in other areas of the world, such as Africa and the Americas. Ethnographic analogies and materials analyses provide insights into these software objects. Production techniques favored ease of manufacture and portability: Clay workers appear to have favored clays with a high natural workability and high green strength; fibers were sometimes added, perhaps to reduce stickiness and/or increase strength. Objects include tokens, sling balls, beads, figurines, and the like, which are found at sites of complex, semisedentary hunter-gatherer-foragers lacking evidence of subsistence reliance on cultigens. These items have not been widely recovered and their uses are not clearly understood, but they probably continued to function in the realm of prestige technologies and/or ritual goods. In such circumstances, links between resource intensification and socioeconomic intensification would have been strengthened. Poor preservation of software clay objects could be a significant hindrance in understanding pottery origins. A software horizon is likely to be archaeologically invisible except under certain advantageous conditions, an empirically and theoretically discomfitting circumstance for archaeologists. While subceramic pots, hardened by a hot, tropical sun, might have been sufficiently durable to be used for some time, it is questionable whether they would survive millennia in a midden, particularly in warm, wet, tropical/subtropical coastal areas. Any archaeologist who has excavated buried adobe or other earthen structures is familiar with the difficulties in discerning their outlines; drying, wetting, or changed light conditions are often the only ways to make them visible. Perhaps similarly painstaking and timeconsuming procedures might provide better recovery of early softwares, but it is questionable whether such efforts would be cost-effective. In addition, given the occurrence of early pottery near present-day coastlines, much clay software originally could have been used in sites that are now well off-coast, submerged by Holocene sea-rise.

Early Fired Pottery How and why did a prestige technology involving use of clay to make non-container objects come to be transformed into a practical technology focused on clay pots? There are several ways of envisioning the start of this transformation, none of them necessarily mutually exclusive. For one, if the use of unfired clay objects in the ethnographic present is any reliable analogy, it may be that some of the earliest containers made of unfired clay were intended to hold fire (e.g., braziers, ovens; see also footnote 11) rather than food. Practical knowledge about successfully hard-



ening clay with the application of fire may have come about through the use of these sunbaked clay objects to hold coals or burn aromatic resins or to apply dry heat. This seems to be a more satisfactory explanation of the beginnings of ceramic technoscience than the case of the exploding figurines. While this explanation most logically seems to lie in the realm of culinary theories of pottery origins, it conforms to ritual/social theories if the clay containers were used for burning aromatics, or to hold rare or valued foods for ritual or feasting. A different perspective comes from Reid (1989, p. 175), who concluded his study of North American hunter-gatherer pottery by raising the possibility that "subceramic meatpots represent the technical precedents for more archaeologically durable ceramic boiling pots, the latter appearing when circumstances such as resource intensification made them locally useful." This possibility receives some support in the limited evidence available on early fired pottery in the Neolithic cultures of western Asia, China, Japan, and the Ceramic Archaic and Woodland cultures of the New World, especially the eastern United States. In these areas, manufacturing technology (especially choice of tempering) seems to have emphasized thermal and mechanical stress resistance. Schiffer and Skibo (1987, p. 607), for example, noted that in the Archaic-period United States, existing ceramic technology "placed a high priority on ease of manufacture and portability, whereas [in the subsequent Woodland period]especially Late Woodlandtechnology stressed heating effectiveness and characteristics that promote longer uselives (e.g., impact resistance, thermal shock resistance, and abrasion resistance)." Pots seem to have been suited to, if not actually used for, moist heating (especially of cereal grains) and stirring. In addition, early fired vessels were often decorated, implying continued socioeconomic or prestige uses in feasting, status, and display. Perhaps pottery was used to prepare, serve, and/or redistribute rare, exotic/introduced, or highly valued food items such as alcoholic beverages and oils. A third viewpoint entails a return to the question, Why clay pots? Answers to this question demand attention to the issue of why existing container technology, whether baskets or gourds or stone bowls, might have been unsuitable or unsatisfactory, as well as why early clay pots often mimicked the shapes of these baskets or gourds. Hayden's (1995, 1998) aggrandizer-based model of the emergence of prestige technologies predicted (see above) that early pottery would appear among complex hunter-gatherer groups as part of emerging social rank distinctions. This pottery would be expected to consist of vessels used for special foods in competitive prestige display events such as communal feasts hosted by aggrandizing individuals. In such circumstances, an aggrandizer, a person intent on building power

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and influence, would accomplish little by displaying foodstuffs, no matter how sumptuous, in the same gourds or stone bowls used by all members of the group for generations. A vessel created by a new technologyfired clayon the other hand, would dramatically call attention to the aggrandizer's unique position. The technology transfer between old and new from baskets or gourd bowls to containers of claymight have been more easily made if unfired clay objects were already known. This explanation fits Hayden's (1998) position that aggrandizers drive technological change. It also suggests that resource intensification and socioeconomic intensification are followed by technological (or "capital") intensification driven by competing aggrandizers, who are also, after all, the agents of socioeconomic intensification. Competition may inspire innovation in order to accentuate differences between rivals:
Superior performance is the goal . . . . Instruments or techniques are sought which, by their comparative excellence, will give them an advantage over existing mechanisms . . . more reasonable, rapid, economical, beautiful, honorific, adequate, efficient, scientific, protective, tastefulin fact, more anything to the discomfort of rivals. . . . (Barnett, 1953, p. 75)

The forming and firing of durable pottery containers, often large and intended for long-term use as "wealth" or "capital," can be considered one early example of this competitive technological innovation.

Widespread Adoption Some time ago, in musing on questions of the origins of pottery, Brown (1986, p. 602) commented that ". . . the earliest use of pottery was likely different from whatever functions it served after becoming well established." This observation underscores the likelihood that reasons for the initial invention of pottery may differ from those explaining its more widespread adoptionor reinvention or "dependent invention" (Clark and Gosser, 1995)and incorporation into the technological repertoire of previously non-pottery using societies. He (Brown, 1986, p. 602) followed this comment by noting that "two questions that can be posed are: did it [pottery] satisfy needs not supplied by existing technology, and did it improve an existing adaptation?" These are important questions, but they can be rephrased: Did the widespread adoption of pottery making and pottery use occur as the movement of a "practical" technology or as a "prestige" technology? Concerning its spread as a practical technology, Brown (1989) followed his critique of culinary adaptationist hypotheses by advancing a more spe-



cific economic or supply-demand model for the adoption of pottery. He (1989, p. 221) suggested that the adoption of pottery represented ... an innovation in a container-starved environment in which water-tight, fire-resistant vessels are in greater demand than existing sources of supply can deliver. Demand increases easily with the addition of new processing needs for new foodways: in particular small-sized seeds and nuts, of which cereal-grain processing is the most demanding of all .... Oyuela-Caycedo (1995, p. 194) echoes a similar theme in stating that pottery was a "tool ... to cope with resource scarcity." In these scenarios, the explanatory mechanism is need/demand for containers in an unpredictable or resource-poor environment. Other insights into the reasons for, and processes of, widespread adoption of pottery can be gleaned from ethnographic analogies discussed above. For example, unfired clay objects used by modern Bedouins are usually made on-site as needed and are not taken with them to different campsites. This suggests that earlier in prehistory, similar fragile, ad hoc "software" may have been made at camps or seasonal aggregation sites but would not be likely to be traded or exchanged until after these objects were made more durable by regular firing. This might have been an important factor limiting the early spread and adoption of pottery; indeed, long intervals of time often passed between the apparent "invention" of pottery in a region and its later widespread adoption. Many lines of evidence, however, suggest that early pottery was adopted or reinvented not as a practical/secular cooking technology but, rather, as a prestige or ritual one, as Hayden (1995, 1998, pp. 28-30) predicts. Similarly, Brown (1989, p. 205) noted that "the adoption of pottery varied in a way that is not consistent with the introduction of plant cultivation in general, to say nothing about its connection with cereal-grain food-processing." The apparent infrequency of sooting supports this position, as does the remarkably widespread occurrence of decorative surface treatments on early pottery. Most of the decoration is done by incising or impressing; in some examples decoration is placed around the rim while in others the embellishments cover the entire vessel exterior surface. Painting and slipping of early pottery, usually with ferruginous pigments, are not unknown, although these treatments seem to be more common in adopted rather than original invented pottery technologies. Early ceramic "technoscience," the body of knowledge of how to make fired pottery, including the location of resources and meaning of decoration, may have been closely restricted. Early pottery could have been not only a prestige technology, but a sacred one as well, understood by only a privileged few. In any case, sedentarization seems to have had

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greater consequences for adoption and elaboration of the pottery craft rather than on its origins, not only because of dietary changes but also because processes of social differentiation were themselves accelerating. If early clay containers and other objects, fired or unfired, began to be traded these exotics would have presumably had considerable value to the receiving group. Over time, locally made clay pots may have eventually lost their mystique, the technology thereby becoming thoroughly "practical," while pots and other items from exotic locales became more prestigious symbols of status. The adoption of pottery could have been either or both, practical and prestige technologies, in different areas and at different times. For example, Clark and Gosser (1995, pp. 212-219), in a comparative discussion of the earliest, and largely contemporaneous, pottery in Mesoamerica, see multiple lines of "dependent invention." Plain utilitarian pottery from arid highland valleys (Purron-Espiridi6n complexes) was associated with small egalitarian groups, apparently representing a "practical" technology. Wellmade, highly decorated pottery from the Pacific lowlands (Barra complex), on the other hand, represents a "prestige" technology, a service ware for ritual use in a competitive, evolving rank society. In both cases, the pottery mimics natural container forms of tree, vine, and bottle gourds and hardrind squashes.19 The innovation was in replacement or substitution of containment media: fired clay instead of gourds and squash.


The widespread archaeological occurrence in the Americas of early pottery mimicking the shape of gourds and squashes is particularly striking in light of widespread lowland South American myths explaining the intermingled origins of pottery, squashes, and forest vines (Levi-Strauss, 1988). In these myths, pottery is a nexus or focal point of cosmic struggles, of conflicts between earth and sky, and gods and humans. Earthly creatures (e.g., Moon, Sun, and their shared wife, a bird known as a goatsucker or nightjar) climbed to the sky on vines that were cut by the jealous actors, and when the wife (or Moon) fell, the potter's clay she was carrying scattered, becoming the clay collected by human potters. Unfortunately, while Levi-Strauss devotes considerable attention to the roles of birds, jealousy, and cosmology in elucidating these myths, there is comparatively little comment on the role of vines and cultivation. Vines and pottery both once connected earth and sky, liminal mechanisms mediating between the two worlds. Vining plants, whether growing wild in the forest or cultivated to yield squashes, share with clay the qualities of being an uncontrolled, unorganized mass, shapeless, amorphous, and pliable. Human (more specifically female) intervention creates order out of disorder, turning amorphous clay into rigid pottery and sprawling squash vines into edible food. The symbolic equivalence of vines/squash/gourds and clay/pottery in American tropical lowland myth gains practical significance in the quotidian world. Early pottery was made in the shape of gourds/squash, perhaps modeled over gourds or squash, and replaced gourds as containers. The insides of squash provided edible food; squashes could be used as molds for identical containers for food.




Clay began to be manipulated by humans tens of thousands of years ago to make prestige objects and representations such as figurines and ornaments. Sun-dried, low-fired, subceramic objects of this early "software horizon" may have been made and used for thousands of years. Early fired clay containers, often fiber-tempered, may have had practical uses in stoneboiling foods, but they were excessively porous and resulted in a weak body. Mineral temper additions or naturally "self-tempered" clays may have begun to be the preferred option in areas where diets changed toward greater emphasis on starchy foods, because such clays can be hard-fired to create stronger vessels, better suited for boiling. Through time, in different ways in different places, manufacture and use of fired clay pots spread widely both as a practical technology for cooking and storage and as a prestige technology for ritual, feasting, and display, often substituting for existing container forms. Review of theories and available data on the origins of pottery reveals some intriguing inferences and observations. These include the following. An early "subceramic" or "software" ceramic technology preceded (or overlapped) later higher-fired, mineral-tempered ceramics. Early noncontainer forms were prestige items and may have had ritual functions. The inception of pottery containers represents the merging of three separate spheres of knowledge and need: clay properties (plasticity), fire hardening, and container needs. The origins of pottery are conceptually, geographically, and empirically distinct from the processes and characteristics of "neolithization" (plant and animal domestication, sedentary village life) and predate these phenomena by millennia. Experiments suggest that coarse, porous, low-fired, fiber-tempered pottery is advantageous in terms of expedient manufacture and portability and is better suited for stone-boiling and/or steaming than full boiling. Pottery containers of this same technological level (i.e., organic-tempered, low-fired, "subceramic" or "software") are known ethnographically and archaeologically among nonsedentary/hunter-gatherer groups. Pottery (container) manufacture can be considered as one end product of a series of cultural transformations beginning with resource intensification (of particular kinds of foods), through

Origins of Pottery


socioeconomic intensification (emergence of social ranking and aggrandizing individuals or families), to technological intensification (pottery as a prestige technology and a durable good). Archaeologically, early pottery containers have been found most commonly in rich, diverse, tropical/subtropical, and riverine/coastal locations among complex (or transegalitarian, storing, accumulating) hunter-gatherers. Early pottery containers seem to have been most important in serving (display) rather than in cooking or long-term storage.

Many of these observations apply not only to the inception of pottery but also to its subsequent diffusion and/or adoption. In addition, many can be considered testable hypotheses that could be investigated in future studies. In asking, Why pots? we have been asking a question about technological choices: Why opt for clay vessels, as opposed to containers of basketry, gourds, or stone? We have also been asking a question about innovation: What circumstances or needs prompted the same inventionfired clay containersin so many places at roughly the same time? There can be no single specific answer to these questions for all times and places; furthermore, different answers/reasons may explain the initial invention of pottery as compared to those illuminating its later widespread adoption. Commonly accepted explanations of pottery origins and adoption are generally materialist and more specifically culinary in nature, pots being viewed as adaptive solutions to economic/subsistence problems. While pottery containers may have been first used in preparation or serving of foodstuffs, this is a proximate function (or explanation) for the invention/adoption of pottery. The ultimate function/explanation/answer to the issue of "why pots?" seems to lie in more social/symbolic realms, as highlighted in Lemmonier's (1993) discussions of the role of technological choices in "transformation in material cultures." Lemonnier (1993, pp. 7, 22, emphasis added) sees "technology as a socially and culturally constructed means of action upon the physical world," noting that "techniques are socially produced and as such are always embedded in some symbolic system." From this perspective, questions on pottery origins should be phrased as, How/why was pottery assigned a different "meaning" than other containers? An answer comes from Hayden (1998), for whom pottery represents one of many prestige technologies incorporated into his model of aggrandizer-sponsored technological innovations. His model is directed toward not only explaining "the evolution of material systems," prestige and practical, but also understanding the relations among social complexity, hierarchies, and material culture. In this



context, pottery is not merely an adaptively advantageous but passive receptacle for food preparation and serving. Rather, it is an active technological choice: a tool, designed or appropriated as an active agent of change in an economic context of abundance and a social context of competition and differentiation. Here, the example of pottery techniques in modern India is illustrative: citing Lemonnier's (1983, p. 18) comment that "technical variants which admit of no strictly material explanations . . . might ... act as signs," Mahias (1993) suggests that varying technical features of pottery maintain and uphold social distinctions, particularly hierarchical differentiation (castes), in Indian society. It remains to give further attention to the apparent co-occurrence of early pottery and tropical/subtropical, coastal/riverine environments. While this correlation may be merely an artifact of bias in excavation location and preservation, it also may be real. If so, it is important to consider how these environments constitute unique settings in which the provisions of Hayden's model involving aggrandizers, intensification, and competitive feasting, and Lemonnier's ideas about technological choices, were realized. As discussed above, in terms of human subsistence, the key elements of the tropics are patchy, unpredictable, and often inaccessible terrestrial resources and scarcity of carbohydrates and oils. Coastal/riverine settings, on the other hand, represent a much more energy-rich setting for semisedentary, complex, hunter-gatherer groups, providing abundant and predictable aquatic resources, especially protein; increased diversity of foodstuffs occurs with proximity to forest edges and interiors. Whether terrestrial or riparian, the kinds of resources available, together with the warm, moist climate of tropical and subtropical locales, make for rapid spoilage and poor storability. In these circumstances, in times of particular (perhaps seasonal) abundance, such as the harvesting of certain kinds of palm nuts or turtles or seafood, there would be a real need for immediate consumption or distribution. The kind of conspicuous consumption carried out at large-scale aggrandizer-sponsored feasting or multigroup trading events would have provided a means of quickly disposing of unstorable surpluses while at the same time giving aggrandizing individuals or families an opportunity to stage an innovative and self-serving display of generosity. One conclusion that can be drawn from this review is that we need more careful archaeological attention to late Pleistocene and early Holocene sites in the tropics. While prevailing Western biases have led archaeologists to focus on the "neolithization process" in cereal-based economies of temperate regions, comparable data on settlement, subsistence, and material culture (especially status-symbol systems) in tropical contexts would provide a much broader picture of the origins of societal complexity. Similarly, it is clear that the origins of pottery throughout the world antedate

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the beginnings of domestication and sedentarization. Pottery origins are more appropriately contextualized in the cultural transformations and intensifications of the late Pleistocene, adaptations that in the Old World are frequently termed "Mesolithic." In addition, we need more studies of the actual, rather than inferred, contents and uses of early pottery. Such studies should include analyses of residues (including sooting) on the surfaces or in the pores, such as gas chromatography, pollen and phytolith identifications, and the like. It would also be useful to have more quantitative data (or estimates) of numbers of vessels and their sizes or capacities. Similarly, more quantified subsistence data from sites yielding early pottery will be necessary to assess thoroughly the role of pottery as a practical technology. Finally, despite the idealized and abstracted sequence sketched above, it is important to reiterate that there was no single evolutionary path of development or adoption of fired pottery. Instead, it is far more likely that, within these parameters, multiple paths were followed in different environments, among people with different subsistence strategies, at different times. Pottery might be best considered (see Clarke, 1968, especially pp. 179-181; Barnett, 1953, p. 181) as a replacement or supplementary technology rather than a completely new one, representing a recombination of technological choices from a "menu" of accumulated adaptations, materials, and techniques long present in a society.


I began trying to set down my thoughts on the origins of pottery in the summer of 1993, and during the subsequent years I have written, revised, and re-revised countless drafts of this paper. The current version owes much to informative discussions with Don Rice about tropical ecology, Lee Newsom on archaeobotany, and Haining Wang on early pottery in China. My thinking has been heavily influenced by Brian Hayden's innovative ideas about aggrandizing individuals and technological change, and I thank him for his thoughtful comments on this manuscript for JAMT. I would also like to express my gratitude to readers Jim Skibo, Richard Pearson, Michael Shott, Karen Vitelli, and Mike Schiffer for their helpful insights, suggestions, criticisms, and suggested references and to Anne Underhill and Angela Close for sending articles. In addition, I would like to thank the graduate students in my seminar on pottery analysis for adding to the fun and keeping me on my toes.



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