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The dissemination of ceramic technology among hunter-gatherers in prehistoric Europe
Pottery-making was widely disseminated by hunter-gatherer social relations.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of York and the British Museum has found that pottery-making techniques spread rapidly among hunter-gatherer groups in Northern and Eastern Europe over a short period of time. The team analyzed more than 1,200 pottery vessels from 156 hunter-gatherer sites in nine countries and used radiocarbon dating, data on pottery production and decoration, and the remains of food found inside the pots to determine that pottery-making spread westward from 5,900 BCE and took only 300-400 years to advance over 3,000 km. The researchers believe that the spread of pottery-making was due to the transmission of social traditions, rather than migration or an expanding population. These findings were published in the journal Nature Human Behavior1.
Professor Oliver Craig, from the University of York's Department of Archaeology, said,
"Our analysis of the ways pots were designed and decorated as well as new radiocarbon dates suggests that knowledge of pottery spread through a process of cultural transmission.
By this we mean that the activity spread by the exchange of ideas between groups of hunter-gatherers living nearby, rather than through migration of people or an expanding population as we see for other key changes in human history such as the introduction of agriculture.
That methods of pottery-making spread so far and so fast through the passing on of ideas is quite surprising. Specific knowledge may have been shared through marriages or at centers of aggregation, specific points in the landscape where groups of hunter-gatherers came together perhaps at certain times of the year."
By studying the traces of organic materials left in the pots, the research team was able to determine that the pottery was used for cooking a wide range of food. This suggests that the ideas of pottery-making may have been spread through shared culinary traditions, as people shared knowledge of pottery-making and decoration through their shared love of cooking and food.
It's possible that specific knowledge of pottery-making may have been shared through marriages or at centers of aggregation, where groups of hunter-gatherers came together at certain times of the year. These findings suggest that the spread of pottery-making was not driven by a particular need, such as detoxifying plants or processing fish, as had previously been suggested. Instead, it appears that pottery-making and use was transmitted along with knowledge of their manufacture and decoration as part of shared culinary traditions.
Carl Heron, from the British Museum, said,
"We found evidence that the vessels were used for cooking a wide range of animals, fish and plants, and this variety suggests that the drivers for making the pottery were not in response to a particular need, such as detoxifying plants or processing fish, as has previously been suggested.
We also found patterns suggesting that pottery use was transmitted along with knowledge of their manufacture and decoration. These can be seen as culinary traditions that were rapidly transmitted with the artifacts themselves."
The world's earliest pottery containers were discovered in East Asia and it is thought that they may have spread rapidly eastward through Siberia before being adopted by hunter-gatherer societies in Northern Europe. This would have occurred long before the arrival of farming in these regions.
Pottery-making is a relatively complex skill that requires knowledge of how to prepare and shape clay, as well as how to fire the pottery in order to harden it. The spread of pottery-making techniques may have facilitated the exchange of ideas and goods, as well as the creation of shared cultural traditions among different groups of people. Pottery also played a practical role in daily life, as it was used for cooking, storing, and transporting food and other items.
Dolbunova, E., Lucquin, A., McLaughlin, T.R. et al. The transmission of pottery technology among prehistoric European hunter-gatherers. Nat Hum Behav (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01491-8