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Pottery Innovation and Transmission in East Asia: bridging expertise across continents

Final Report Summary - PONTE (Pottery Innovation and Transmission in East Asia: bridging expertise across continents)

PONTE aims to understand initial use of ceramic vessels in human history, using noble biochemical methods. Pottery is one of humanity’s most important and enduring innovations, a milestone in human achievement that paved the way for sophisticated cooking, storage and many other technologies. Recent archaeological research tells us that this innovation happened in East Asia towards the end of the Pleistocene. However very little is known about how and why pottery first appeared, as well as when and where the innovation subsequently spread. Knowing how early pottery was used provides the strongest indication of why it was used, and this is the rationale for this research. PONTE aims to unite the state-of-the-art expertise in organic residue analysis, with knowledge of East Asian prehistoric archaeology.
PONTE is asking the following research questions:

1. Did the large increase in pottery production at the start of the Holocene relate to a more specialised or less specialised function?
2. Did the use of early pottery change according to the climatic and palaeoenvironmental conditions?
3. Were the foods prepared in pottery representative of commonly available local resources or was pottery being used selectively to process specific foodstuffs?
4. Were pots with different forms and stylistic attributes used differently in the different phases?
5. Are patterns in the use of the earliest pottery in Japan also observable in other areas of East Asia?

To answer these questions, PONTE has three main objectives as follows:
1. To develop methods suitable for the rapid screening and extraction of lipids from small samples of pottery and carbonised deposits.
2. To use methods in organic residue analysis to examine the transition from the Late Pleistocene to the Early Holocene in Japan.
3. To conduct pilot studies of early pottery use in other regions of East Asia including China, South Korea and Russia.

With the PONTE project the fellow had high quality training in biomolecular techniques at the University of York, including:

1. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic analysis of charred remains on pottery
2. Lipid residue analysis of pottery remains
3. Bulk collagen stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic analysis

During his training the fellow led an interdisciplinary research team formed by archaeologist and biochemists in order to achieve the above-mentioned objectives.

Main results

This project shed a new light on the early use of pottery in the world. The main results from this project can be categorised into four clusters namely, 1) Early pottery use in Japan, 2) Detection of biomarker of millet, 3) Diversity of pottery use in Early Holocene East Asia, and 4) Different function according to their decoration and their site locations in the Korean Neolithic pottery.

The Incipient and Initial Jomon pottery, one of the earliest pottery tradition in the world was revealed to be highly oriented to processing aquatic resources in spite of drastic climate changes during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. This is totally new insight into initial motivation of pottery use in Japan because previously they had supposed that pottery use should be not specialized much or could be used for detoxification of nuts, that are contrary to our results.
Miliacin (olean-18-en-3β-ol methyl ether), a pentacyclic triterpene methyl ether that is enriched in grains of common/broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) was detected in several archaeological ceramics from the Majoen-ri site in Korea. The presence of millet in these samples is supported by enriched carbon stable isotope values of n-alkanoic acids, consistent with a C4 plant origin. These data represent the first identification of millet in archaeological ceramic vessels, providing a means to track the introduction, spread and consumption of this important crop, that has huge potential to world-wide application of this method.
Diversity in East Asian Holocene was clearly illustrated by comparing the results from the Japanese, Korean and Chinese Early Holocene sites. The difference is especially obvious between China and northeast Asia (Japan, Korea); in the former there is contribution from freshwater resources and C3 plants, while in the latter marine resources are the major objectives. This difference can be because of their different subsistence such as rice agriculture in the former and gathering and fishing in the latter.
Different use of pottery according to their decoration and their site locations was observed. In the Jukbyeon-ri site in Korea, one of the early sites with pottery in this area, there are significant differences in pottery use not only between pottery types but also between two localities; one with superiority of the location to another. The results highlighted that in the superior location coarse pottery were mostly used for marine organisms, while elaborated red burnished pottery were used for others, presumably terrestrial non-ruminants or less likely, freshwater fish. This tendency was not observed in the other locality. This indicates that early Korean pottery has already developed system of use at the initial stage of their adoption.