Yuchanyan and Xianrendong Caves - Oldest Pottery in the World

Upper Paleolithic Pottery in China

20,000-Year Old Pottery Fragment from Xianrendong, West Section 2A.
20,000-Year Old Pottery Fragment from Xianrendong, West Section 2A. [Image courtesy of Science/AAAS

Xianrendong and Yuchanyan caves in northern China are the oldest of a growing number of sites which support the origins of pottery as having occurred not just in the Japanese island Jomon culture of 11,000-12,000 years ago, but earlier in the Russian Far East and South China some 18,000-20,000 years ago.

Scholars believe these are independent inventions, as were the later inventions of ceramic vessels in Europe and the Americas.

Xianrendong Cave

Xianrendong Cave is located at the foot of Xiaohe mountain, in Wannian county, northeast Jiangxi province of China, 15 kilometers (~10 miles) west of the provincial capital and 100 km (62 mi) south of the Yangtze river. Xianrendong contained the oldest pottery in the world yet identified: ceramic vessel remains, bag-shaped jars made some ~20,000 calendar years ago (cal BP).

The cave has a large inner hall, measuring some 5 meters (16 feet) wide by 5-7 m (16-23 ft) high with a small entrance, only 2.5 m (8 ft) wide and 2 m (6 ft) high. Located some 800 m (about 1/2 mile) from Xianrendong, and with an entrance some 60 m (200 ft) higher in elevation, is the Diaotonguan rock shelter: it contains the same cultural strata as Xianrendong and some archaeologists believe it was used as a campsite by Xianrendong's residents. Many of the published reports include information from both sites.

Cultural Stratigraphy at Xianrendong

Four cultural strata have been identified at Xianrendong, including an occupation spanning the transition from Upper Paleolithic to Neolithic times in China, and three early Neolithic occupations. All seem to represent primarily fishing, hunting and gathering lifestyles, although some evidence for early rice domestication has been noted within the Early Neolithic occupations.

In 2009, an international team (Wu 2012) focused on the intact pottery bearing levels layers at the base of the excavations, and a suite of dates between 12,400 and 29,300 cal BP were taken. The lowest sherd-bearing levels, 2B-2B1, were subjected to 10 AMS radiocarbon dates, ranging from 19,200-20,900 cal BP, making Xianrendong's sherds the earliest identified pottery in the world today.

  • Neolithic 3 (9600-8825 RCYBP)
  • Neolithic 2 (11900-9700 RCYBP)
  • Neolithic 1 (14,000-11,900 RCYBP) appearance of O. sativa
  • Paleolithic-Neolithic Transition (19,780-10,870 RCYBP)
  • Epipaleolithic (25,000-15,200 RCYBP) only wild oryza

Xianrendong Artifacts and Features

Archaeological evidence suggests the earliest occupation at Xianrendong was a permanent, long-term occupation or reuse, with evidence for substantial hearths and ash lenses. In general, a hunter-fisher-gatherer lifestyle was followed, with emphasis on deer and wild rice (Oryza nivara phytoliths).

  • Pottery: A total of 282 pottery sherds were recovered from the oldest levels. They have uneven thick walls between .7 and 1.2 centimeters (~1.4-1.5 inches), with round bases and inorganic (sand, mainly quartz or feldspar) temper. The paste has a brittle and loose texture, and a heterogeneous reddish and brown color which resulted from uneven, open air firing. Forms are mainly round-bottomed bag-shaped jars, with rough surfaces, the inner and outer surfaces sometimes decorated with cord marks, smoothing striations and/or basket-like impressions. They appear to have been made with two different techniques: by sheet laminating or coil and paddle techniques.
  • Stone Tools: The stone tools are by and large chipped stone tools based on flakes, with scrapers, burins, small projectile points, drills, notches and denticulates. Hard-hammer and soft-hammer stone tool making techniques are both in evidence. The oldest levels have a small percentage of polished stone tools compared to chipped, particularly in comparison with the Neolithic levels.
  • Bone tools: harpoons and fishing spear points, needles, arrowheads, and shell knives.
  • Plants and animals: Predominant emphasis on deer, bird, shellfish, turtle; wild rice phytoliths.

The Early Neolithic levels at Xianrendong are also substantial occupations. The pottery has a wider variety of clay composition and many sherds are decorated with geometric designs. Clear evidence for rice cultivation, with both O. nivara and O. sativa phytoliths present.

There is also an increase in polished stone tools, with a primarily pebble tool industry including a few perforated pebble disks and flat pebble adzes.

Yuchanyan Cave

Yuchanyan Cave is a karst rock shelter south of the Yangtze River basin in Daoxian county, Hunan province, China. Yuchanyan's deposits contained the remains of at least two nearly complete ceramic pots, securely dated by associated radiocarbon dates at having been placed in the cave between 18,300-15,430 cal BP.

Yuchanyan's cave floor includes an area of 100 square meters, some 12-15 m (~40-50 ft) wide on its east-west axis and 6-8 m (~20-26 ft) wide on the north-south. The upper deposits were removed during the historical period, and the remaining site occupation debris ranges between 1.2-1.8 m (4-6 ft) in depth. All of the occupations within the site represent brief occupations by Late Upper Paleolithic people, between 21,000 and 13,800 BP. At the time of the earliest occupation, the climate in the region was warm, watery and fertile, with plenty of bamboo and deciduous trees. Over time, a gradual warming throughout the occupation occurred, with a trend towards replacing the trees with grasses. Towards the end of the occupation, the Younger Dryas (ca. 13,000-11,500 cal BP) brought increased seasonality to the region.

Yuchanyan Artifacts and Features

Yuchanyan cave exhibited generally good preservation, resulting in the recovery of a rich archaeological assemblage of stone, bone, and shell tools as well as a wide variety of organic remains, including both animal bone and plant remains.

The floor of the cave was purposefully covered with alternating layers of red clay and massive ash layers, which likely represent deconstructed hearths, rather than production of clay vessels.

  • Pottery: The sherds from Yuchanyan are some of the earliest examples of pottery yet found. They are all dark brown, coarsely-made pottery with a loose and sandy texture. The pots were hand-built and low-fired (ca. 400-500 degrees C); kaolinite is a major component of the fabric. The paste is thick and uneven, with walls up to 2 centimeters thick. The clay was decorated with cord impressions, on both the interior and exterior walls. Enough sherds were recovered for the scholars to reconstruct a large, wide mouthed vessel (round opening 31 cm in diameter, vessel height 29 cm) with a pointed bottom; this style of pottery is known from much later Chinese sources as a fu cauldron.
  • Stone Tools: Stone tools recovered from Yuchanyan include cutters, points, and scrapers.
  • Bone Tools: Polished bone awls and shovels, perforated shell ornaments with notched-tooth decorations also were found within the assemblages.
  • Plants and animals: Plant species recovered from the cave's deposits include wild grapes and plums. Several rice opal phytoliths and husks have been identified, and some scholars have suggested that some of the grains illustrate incipient domestication. Mammals include bears, boar, deer, tortoises, and fish. The assemblage includes 27 different types of birds, including cranes, ducks, geese, and swans; five kinds of carp; 33 kinds of shellfish.

Archaeology at Yuchanyan and Xianrendong

Xianrendong was excavated in 1961 and 1964 by the Jiangxi Provincial Committee for Cultural Heritage, led by Li Yanxian; in 1995-1996 by the Sino-American Jiangxi Origin of Rice Project, led by R.S. MacNeish, Wenhua Chen and Shifan Peng; and in 1999-2000 by Peking University and the Jiangxi Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics.

Excavations at Yuchanyan were conducted beginning in the 1980s, with extensive investigations between 1993-1995 led by Jiarong Yuan of the Hunan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology; and again between 2004 and 2005, under the direction of Yan Wenming.