Ancient lipids document continuity in the use of early hunter-gatherer pottery through 9,000 years of Japanese prehistory

Alexandre Lucquin, Kevin Gibbs, Junzo Uchiyama, Hayley Saul, Mayumi Ajimoto, Yvette Eley, Anita Radini, Carl P. Heron, Shinya Shoda, Yastami Nishida, Jasmine Lundy, Peter Jordan, Sven Isaksson, Oliver E. Craig*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The earliest pots in the world are from East Asia and date to the Late Pleistocene. However, ceramic vessels were only produced in large numbers during the warmer and more stable climatic conditions of the Holocene. It has long been assumed that the expansion of pottery was linked with increased sedentism and exploitation of new resources that became available with the ameliorated climate, but this hypothesis has never been tested. Through chemical analysis of their contents, we herein investigate the use of pottery across an exceptionally long 9,000-y sequence from the Jōmon site of Torihama inwestern Japan, intermittently occupied from the Late Pleistocene to the mid-Holocene. Molecular and isotopic analyses of lipids from 143 vessels provides clear evidence that pottery across this sequence was predominantly used for cooking marine and freshwater resources, with evidence for diversification in the range of aquatic products processed during the Holocene. Conversely, there is little indication that ruminant animals or plants were processed in pottery, although it is evident from the faunal and macrobotanical remains that these foods were heavily exploited. Supported by other residue analysis data from Japan, our results show that the link between pottery and fishing was established in the Late Paleolithic and lasted well into the Holocene, despite environmental and socio-economic change. Cooking aquatic products in pottery represents an enduring social aspect of East Asian hunter-gatherers, a tradition based on a dependable technology for exploiting a sustainable resource in an uncertain and changing world.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3991–3996
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
Early online date21 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2016

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