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Cooking secrets of the Neolithic era revealed in groundbreaking scientific tests

By 0 and 0 and 0
01 February 2020


Reconstruction of Osipovka Culture vessel (right) and pot shards found at Gasya and Khummi (left). Pictures: Vitaly Medvedev, Oksana Yanshina

Ancient potteries started to appear in the Amur region in the Russian Far East between roughly 16,000 and 12,000 years ago, as the Ice Age slightly eased. 

But what was cooking?

A new international study asks not only why the pots evolved at this time - but examines the type of food they served.

It turns out some ancient Siberian hunter-gatherers survived the Ice Age by inventing pottery which helped them to maintain a fish diet. 

Others used their new pots to cook meat. 


Some of the pot shards selected for the researc. Gromatukha (1-5), Khummi (6-8), Goncharka-1 (9-11). Picture: Shoda et al.

These cooking secrets are revealed by lipid residue - or fatty acid - analysis of 28 pot shards found at various sites in the Russian Far East. 

These are some of the oldest pots in the world. 

The Osipovka culture in the lower reaches of the Amur River used pots to process fish, most likely migratory salmon, and obtain aquatic oils.

Such salmon-based hot pots remain a favourite even today. 

For late glacial period hunter-gatherers such dishes were seen as ‘an alternative food source during periods of major climatic fluctuation’ - for example when severe cold prevented hunting on land.

Gasya excavations in 1980

Excavations of Gasya settlement in 1980. Picture: Vitaly Medvedev

The makes the Osipovka similar to people in modern-day Japanese islands, says the study in the Quaternary Science Reviews.

Yet the Gromatukha culture upstream on the Amur had other culinary ideas. 

Here pots were being used to cook land animals, like deer, roe deer, wild goat, scientists found. 

The was ‘probably to extract nutritious bone grease and marrow during the hungriest seasons’, according to a synopsis of the report.

The clay cooking pots used by these ancient people were made in different ways in various localities.

Gromatukha pottery

Pot shards found at Gromatukha site. Picture: Oksana Yanshina 

This is seen as indicating a parallel process of innovation, where separate groups without contact all found the same solutions spurred by pressure from the cold climates in which they survived.

Peter Jordan, Director of the Arctic Centre at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, senior author of the study,  said: ‘The insights are particularly interesting because they suggest that there was no single ‘origin point’ for the world’s oldest pottery – 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 kinds of resources. 

‘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.’


Pots shards found at Khummi site. Picture: Oksana Yanshina

Oliver Craig, Director of the BioArch Lab at the University of York, where the analyses were conducted, said said the study ‘illustrates the exciting potential of new methods in archaeological science - we can extract and interpret the remains of meals that were cooked in pots over 16,000 years ago’.

Oksana Yanshina, Senior Researcher at the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, leader of the Russian team, and a co-athorr of the research said: ‘This study resolves some major debates in Russian Archaeology about what drove the emergence and very earliest use of ancient pottery in the Far Eastern Regions. 

‘But at the same time, this paper is just a small but important first step. 

‘We still need to do many more studies of this kind to fully understand how prehistoric societies innovated and adapted to past climate change. And perhaps this will also provide us with some important lessons about how we can better prepare for future climate change.’



Goncharka-1 in situ

Pot shards found at Goncharka-1 site. Pictures: Oksana Yanshina

Once developed, pottery quickly proved to be highly attractive tool for the processing of water and land foods, and it came into its own with the onset of the warm Holocene period around 11,000 years ago. 

This was long before the transition to farming.

Co-author Dr Vitaly Medvedev, leading researcher of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, said he was ‘incredibly lucky’ to find the ancient pottery which has now been studied within this study. 

‘At that time, in the 1980s, it was the world oldest,’ he told The Siberian Times today. ‘The first finds were in 1975 and then more in 1980. 

'When we found the pottery many did not believe us at first. We got the first radiocarbon data - 12,960 years old. 

Amur River

Amur River

Amur River. Pictures: Khabarovsk Region Administration, @sergeyiss

‘It was at the Gasya ancient settlement in 80 kilometres from Khabarovsk, down the Amur River.’ 

He said: ’This first pottery was very soft. The temperature of firing was very low, only 350 - 400 degrees Celsius. 

‘There is an interesting story about this. When were found the first vessel at Gasya settlement. It was summer, rather hot. 

‘A girl-student was digging there and suddenly she told me: ‘Looks like I have some plasticine here’. Of course there could not be any plasticine there, so when we looked closely, and saw it was pottery. 

Goncharka-1 excavations site

Excavations at Goncharka-1 site. Picture: Oksana Yanshina

‘But it was so soft. We wrapped it into special paper and after two days it hardened, but was still quite loose, like cookies. 

'We were wondering about purpose of the pottery. We paid attention from the very beginning that the vessels were covered with thick layer of soot. Plus, inside there was a layer of soot left from food. It was clear that ancient people cooked some food in the vessel - and more than once. 

‘I came up with the idea then that it could be fish, as there is an abundance of fish in the  Amur. And all our finds pointed to (the people being) fishers. Academician Alexey Okladnikov even named the people of Lower Amur as 'ichthyophages', as their life was based on fisheries. 

Salmon spawning

Salmon spawning in one of the Amur River tributaries. Picture: Konstantin K.

‘So what else could they cook there? I also suggest that they could process and store cod-liver oil in their vessels.

‘We see that these people used nets, most likely made of plant fibre (kind of nettle), as we found stone sinkers for nets. 

‘Can you imagine how many fish could they get during salmon spawning? Surely they needed to process this somehow to store for winter season. We see that they smoked and dried fish, and obviously they cooked it. 

Amur River indigenous people

Amur River indigenous people are netting salmon in modern days. Picture: AiF

'I even think that they came up with the idea of permanent dwellings. One of the earliest permanent dwelling appears in the Osipovka culture as they allowed to stay at the same place during the winter season, having stored big amount of fish. 

‘They had no need to relocate together with migrating animals, as did hunters. Their dwellings were dug into the ground. They dug a round holes, put the pillars and covered them with roof of birch bark, turf. 

‘It is great that the resent research from our international team confirmed our suggestions and helped us to get closer to understanding of this unique and amazing culture.'

Comments (3)

I am very interested in all of this areal archaeology. I am working on a prehistoric novel concerning this development, and the continuity of taiga/riverine culture in Siberia from about 11,600 BCE (start of the Great Thaw) to about 450 CE (late Classical times). I am attempting to make my stories and their characters and cultures as realistic as possible.
Thomas E. Lehman, Augusta GA/United States
20/04/2021 22:31
What an interesting article. I have often wondered at how different ancient cultures were able to create similar tools and even domiciles when they had no contact with other cultures. Maybe we are not so different, after all.
Karen Graham, Richmond, Virginia USA
04/02/2020 06:05
WRONG title. The text clearly states that the pottery is pre-varming. Sorry for the lack of understanding the issue.
Lise skith, Denmark
01/02/2020 22:21

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