Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Stone Age Pottery
Human history is full of invention. Many of these inventions seem pretty commonplace to us today, until we stop to think about what the world would have been like without them. For example, storage vessels and pots are something we're pretty used to. Now imagine a world without any vases, pots, or containers of any type. That would be terrible.
Pottery was one of the first great inventions in history to truly transform human lives and societies. But where did it come from? And how was it developed? To understand that, we need to start by dividing the Stone Age in two distinct eras, the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). While humans of both eras used stone tools and did not have metal, they were very different. Paleolithic people were hunters and gatherers, while the Neolithic Revolution ushered in the development of agriculture and permanent, settled societies.
For a long time, archeologists believed that pottery was an invention of the Neolithic era. This made sense; people who lived in one place had the time to make ceramics, surplus resources to store in them, and space to keep them without having to carry them from campsite to campsite. However, more and more evidence has emerged which suggests that this may not be the case, at least not everywhere. Pottery may have begun transforming human societies even earlier than we previously thought.
Pottery in East Asia
So, who were the first people to develop pottery, and how'd they do it? In 2012, archeologists announced an incredible discovery: the oldest functional pottery in the world. It was found in the Xianrendong Cave of China, and dated to 18,000 BCE. That's millennia before the advent of farming, proving that pottery did exist before the Neolithic Revolution.
But why? That question is harder to answer. Some archeologists think that global cooling around this time may have made resources scarce, so people developed ways to store food supplies and save them for later. Regardless, people in China were producing pottery for storage long ago. The pottery was crude and rough, but functional. That technology began spreading across East Asia, reaching Japan's Paleolithic Jomon culture around 14,500 BCE.
By the time the Neolithic Revolution occurred, pottery was well established in East Asia. However, farming brought with it other inventions, like the wheel. With the potter's wheel, as well as more refined techniques for preparing clay, East Asian pottery become smoother, more sophisticated, and often highly decorative.
Pottery in Europe and West Asia
If pottery was first developed in East Asia, how'd it end up in Europe? Europe is actually home to the world's oldest fire-baked ceramic. This artifact is a decorative figurine, called the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, which was found in the Czech Republic and dates to roughly 25,000 BCE. So, Neolithic people knew how to make ceramics, but they don't seem to have created functional storage vessels until that knowledge made its way across Central Asia.
Pottery emerged in Mesopotamian, Persian, and Egyptian societies before appearing in Greece between 7,000 and 6,000 BCE. The Greeks really took to ceramics, which became some of the most sought-after trade items in the Mediterranean. The oldest Greek vases of the early Neolithic era were plain and crude, but were soon decorated with blended black and red patterns. As the Neolithic era advanced, Greek ceramics became more sophisticated and started taking on the characteristic black, red, and cream patterns that would later define the Greek aesthetic.
Finally, let's look at the development of pottery in the Americas. The Americas are interesting because few societies ever developed metal, so the term ''Stone Age'' is less descriptive. Additionally, a number of cultures in this hemisphere never chose to give up nomadic lifestyles for farming. Still, pottery became a definitive and important art form across both North and South America.
As in other areas, pottery was assumed to have been invented in the Americas along with the Neolithic development of agriculture in places such as Mexico, Peru, and the Mississippi River Valley. However, archeological discoveries in South America found proof of pottery fragments in the lower Amazon basin that were 7,000 to 8,000 years old (averaging 5,500 BCE in age). This technology spread north across the Americas, becoming especially refined in the settled population centers of the Andes Mountains and Valley of Mexico. Interestingly, pottery appeared in North America earlier than it did in Mexico, which suggests that it was developed independently by peoples of what is now the American South (specifically Georgia and the Carolinas).
Impact of Pottery
By the end of the Stone Age, pottery had been established in nearly every populated corner of the globe. It was a very important part of Stone Age life, which let people store surplus food and preserve it for later, protecting themselves against unexpected droughts. Vases themselves were also some of the first functional items to become decorative as well, representing a canvas that every human group around the world would eventually use to make their societies a little more beautiful. In fact, pottery became one of the most definitive art forms of many cultures as the Bronze Age emerged, and works in pottery became some of the world's most sought-after trade items.
Pottery is an ancient art form that had major impacts on human history. While the oldest evidence of ceramic arts is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice from the Czech Republic, the oldest functional pottery was found at the Xianrendong Cave of China (18,000 BCE). Pottery seems to have spread from China to Japan, as well as west to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia before arriving in Greece around 6,000 BCE. In the Americas, pottery was first developed in the Amazon basin, before making its way west into the Andes and north to Mexico. Everywhere that pottery emerged, it transformed human societies. We may take it for granted today, but it's one of the most influential inventions in human history.
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