Did Hunter Gatherers Produce Pottery? You bet!

Its an idea that has become conventional thinking.

Pottery is a child of agriculture. There is no advantage for a society to produce ceramic technology unless it is at least partly agricultural.

Hunter gatherers, who move around the landscape, wont produce it in any quantity because it is simply too much to lug around. Besides, if youre living this kind of lifestyle youre not storing more food than you can carry.

Whats the problem with this idea? Quite simply, its not true!

Research in the Great Lakes area of North America has confirmed that people were using pottery for nearly 1,500 years until they adopted an agricultural way of life. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Japan, archaeologists know that people from the Jomon culture were producing pottery as far back as 10,000 years ago, even though their way of life was based on hunting and gathering.

So to me its no surprise to hear that Chinese hunters and gatherers were making it as far back as 18,000 years ago according to this Nature report.

Lets take a look at the North America example.

In the start of a period called the Early Woodland, about 900 BC, people across the Great Lakes region began making cord pottery.

Pottery was likely formed around a basket or bag while being made (hence the cord decoration). It was thick, poorly fired and not what you would see a modern ceramic master make… but it was pottery.

While domesticated sunflower had made its way north, society was still based on hunting and gathering. Horticulture didnt play a significant role.

Why they started producing pottery, even though they were hunter gatherers, is a bit of a mystery

The people are still living a hunting and gathering way of life,Professor Peter Timmins told me.

Timmins is a University of Western Ontario professor who has done extensive research on Great Lakes archaeology through the university and the cultural resource management firm he co-leads.

Society, in the Great Lakes, didnt adopt agricultureon a large scale until1000 AD,when year-round villages came into existence and peoplebecame dependenton agriculture for their livelihood.In northern Ontario, where the terrain was rocky, people were never able to adopt farming. However, they produced pottery as well.

Why these groupsstarted producing pottery, even though they were hunter gatherers, is a bit of a mystery. Some events leading up to its development were a population increase in the millennia before, a climate shift from sub-arctic to moderate (by 4,000 BC) that made plant foods more widely available, and of course the use of domesticated sunflower.

Dr. Timmins said that, in the case of the Great Lakes, he believes that pottery making likely diffused from the American southeast, where it had been developed earlier.

I think it was a process of diffusion really and probably involved trade as well, said Dr. Timmins. He noted that pottery developed in the American Southeast earlier, and that trade tended to bring objects from south to north.