Ancient Siberian hunters created hot pots to cook food, survive harsh winters of the Ice Age

Ancient Siberian hunters created heat-resistant pots so that they could cook hot meals — surviving the harshest seasons of the last Ice Age by extracting nutritious bone grease, and marrow from meat, according to a study.

The research, published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, also suggests there was no single point of origin for the world's oldest pottery.

The last Ice Age reached its deepest point between 26,000 and 20,000 years ago, forcing humans to abandon northern regions, including large parts of Siberia.

Shards of pottery from a cooking pot used by Siberian hunters. Image credit: Yanshina Oksana

From around 19,000 years ago, temperatures slowly started to warm again, encouraging small bands of hunters to move back into these vast empty landscapes, said researchers, including those from the University of York in the UK.

They extracted and analysed ancient fats and lipids that had been preserved in pieces of ancient pottery — found at a number of sites on the Amur River in Russia — whose dates ranged between 16,000 and 12,000 years ago.

"It is interesting that pottery emerges during these very cold periods, and not during the comparatively warmer interstadials when forest resources, such as game and nuts, were more available," said Professor Oliver Craig from the University of York.

Why these pots were first invented in the final stages of the last Ice Age has long been a mystery, as well as the kinds of food that were being prepared in them, the researchers said.

They also examined pottery found from the Osipovka culture on the Amur River.

Analysis proved that pottery from there had been used to process fish, most likely migratory salmon, which offered local hunters an alternative food source during periods of major climatic fluctuation.

An identical scenario was identified by the same research group in the neighbouring islands of Japan.

The last Ice Age reached its deepest point between 26,000 and 20,000 years ago, forcing humans to abandon northern regions, including large parts of Siberia.

The latest study demonstrates that the world's oldest clay cooking pots were being made in very different ways in several parts of Northeast Asia.

This indicates a "parallel" process of innovation, where separate groups that had no contact with each other started to move towards similar kinds of technological solutions in order to survive, the researchers said.

"We are very pleased with these latest results because they close a major gap in our understanding of why the world's oldest pottery was invented in different parts of Northeast Asia in the Late Glacial Period, and also the contrasting ways in which it was being used by these ancient hunter-gatherers," said Shinya Shoda, of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Japan.

The insights are particularly interesting because they suggest that there was no single "origin point" for the world's oldest pottery, the researchers said.

"We are starting to understand that very different pottery traditions were emerging around the same time but in different places, and that the pots were being used to process very different sets of resources," said Professor Peter Jordan from the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands.

"This appears to be a process of parallel innovation during a period of major climatic uncertainty, with separate communities facing common threats and reaching similar technological solutions," Jordan said.

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