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From CERamic RESidues to the economic and social context of early pottery use in North Eastern North America

Final Report Summary - CERES (From CERamic RESidues to the economic and social context of early pottery use in North Eastern North America)

Once associated with the advent of agriculture and village life, ceramic vessels are now known to have been produced well before any evidence for food production in many parts of the world. The CERES project was aimed at identifying patterns of early pottery uses in Northeastern North America (thereafter NE North America), one region where pre-agricultural pottery has emerged as a problem with broad social and economic implications, by combining archaeological and molecular data. To achieve this main outcome a framework of analysis was elaborated, revolving around three objectives:

1) Assess patterns of early pottery use in NE North America through organic residue analysis
2) Understand the motivations behind the initial use of pottery vessels in NE North America
3) Compare interpretations achieved for NE North America with data from other regions of preagricultural pottery use

Assessing patterns of early pottery uses in NE North America through organic residue analysis
To account for variability in early pottery usage patterns, close to 400 potsherds from 33 different archaeological sites distributed in different ecological provinces and originating from a range of archaeological contexts were sampled. Sixty-five potsherds were found to have charred surface deposits amenable to isotope-ratio-mass-spectrometry (IRMS) analysis. This entire lot was sampled and submitted to IRMS analysis. To provide more specific information on pottery use, lipids analysis of foodcrusts and absorbed residues by gas chromatography and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS) was performed. Lipids were successfully extracted from 143 ceramic samples (130 interior and 13 exterior samples) and 10 carbonized surface deposits (8 foodcrust and 2 exterior soot samples) from 112 vessels. GC-c-IRMS analysis was also carried out on 60 samples representing 52 individual vessels to further investigate the source of lipids recovered from the assemblage.
IRMS values obtained from potsherds found on coastal sites are consistent with the preparation of isotopically heavier marine foods. Carbonised deposits from potsherds found on inland sites are more difficult to interpret based on bulk isotope characteristics alone, possibly indicating a more complex mixture of sources. Lipids analysis was mainly carried out using a newly developed acid extraction method allowing a better characterization of the fatty acids preserved in the ‘bound’ phase of organic residues. It was found that for this specific type of pottery lipids survive better in absorbed residues than in foodcrusts. In terms of lipid composition analysis by gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) revealed the presence of lipid biomarkers derived from aquatic organisms in a large number of pots from both coastal and inland sites. Moreover, overall the isotopic composition of mid-chain n-alkanoic acids (C16 and C18) confirms that the vast majority of samples submitted for analysis are consistent with a marine or freshwater origin. In contrast, the evidence for plant and terrestrial lipids in Vinette 1 pottery is surprisingly limited considering the high abundance of these resources in temperate woodland environments, and their common recovery in the faunal and botanical assemblages from the sampled archaeological sites.
Understanding the motivations behind the initial uses of pottery vessels in NE North America
Based on the combination of archaeological information and new molecular evidence for the initial use of ceramic vessels in NE North America, it was suggested that at least some early pottery sites in this region were important focal points for large seasonal gatherings and that the invention and widespread uptake of pottery throughout NE North America was associated with the need to prepare aquatic resources in the context of increased interregional interaction at this time. Most likely seasonal peaks in the availability (in the case of migratory fish) or abundance of particular marine and freshwater species during the spawning season promoted social gatherings at productive fishing grounds to practice cooperative harvesting by multiple local bands.
Comparing NE North America with data and other regions of preagricultural pottery use
Comparing cases of early pre-agricultural pottery uses point to several converging factors which may highlight a similar common purpose for the independent invention and development of pottery in different parts of the world, i.e. the processing of aquatic resources. Indeed, lipids from marine and freshwater resources have been identified in other studies of pottery by temperate Holocene and Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies. These include the Ertebølle of Northern Europe ~7.5- 6kBP (21) and the Jōmon of Japan ~15.5-11.5 kBP (26). In each of these cases, seasonally abundant aquatic resources may have drawn a number of local communities together, encouraged investment in the production and use of pottery, and promoted the articulation of new kinds of social relations.
WIDER IMPACT. The CERES project has greatly advanced the state of knowledge on a key period in North American prehistory, going further than any American-led research before. This gives European research a competitive advantage in this field and increases its attractiveness for next generations of scholars. Results generated by CERES have also made significant advances in the field of early pottery studies, not only in the Americas but also in Europe and other parts of the world. Through dissemination of research results in North American conferences and in high profile scientific journals (e.g. PNAS), the project is increasing the visibility of European researchers and European-based research abroad. Through student training the fellow has also demonstrated the international aspects of York degree programmes. Ultimately such activities will raise the profile of a number of European graduate courses in North America. Recruitment of North American students at masters and PhD level provides the opportunities for further integrated research and generates a substantial amount of income within the EU.
The CERES project has contributed to building new collaborations between North American and European researchers and institutions. The former fellow (Taché) has now transferred to a tenure-track position as assistant professor of archaeology at Queens College, New York, where she was mandated to set up new laboratory facilities linking archaeology to organic chemistry and biology using the BioArCh model. Dr. Oliver Craig, who supervised the CERES project, will be involved in this process and will become a close collaborator once the facilities are set up. This will allow the creation of an international network of key institutions based on the transfer of scientific knowledge. Joint North American/UK grants (e.g. NSERC, NSF) will also be sought beyond the fellowships to pursue long term and mutually beneficial collaborations in the fields of early pottery studies and organic residue analysis.

Finally, the CERES project has addressed larger anthropological issues related to the way people innovate and employ artefacts to modify their environments and accomplish social purposes of everyday life. Such questions have great relevance for our society, at a time when it is becoming critically important to assess the relationships that exist between culture, environmental changes, and technology. Moreover, core methods of organic residue analysis have a diverse number of applications and are transferable. Results generated by the CERES project can therefore contribute to a range of domains within the European Research Area. For example, evaluating methods for the extraction and characterisation of residues in ceramics have implications for the enhanced recovery of organic residues from soils and sediments, which in turn is extremely important for characterising the current environment (e.g. assessing land contamination or the impact of agricultural practices on soil fertility). The project outputs have thus contributed to some of the main European goals by providing research findings towards the Food, Agriculture and Biotechnology; Environment (including climate change) and Socio-economic sciences and Humanities themes of the EU FP7 Cooperation Work Programme.