Culinary Innovations Helped Hunter-Gatherers Survive the Ice Age
By The Siberian Times reporter
Ancient pottery 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.
Reconstruction of Osipovka Culture vessel (right) and pot shards found at Gasya and Khummi (left). (Images: Vitaly Medvedev, Oksana Yanshina/ The Siberian Times)
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 favorite 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.
Excavations of Gasya settlement in 1980. (Image: Vitaly Medvedev / The Siberian Reporter)
That 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 and wild goat the scientists found.
This was ‘probably to extract nutritious bone grease and marrow during the hungriest seasons’, according to a synopsis of the report .
Parallel Pottery Innovations
The clay cooking pots used by these ancient people were made in different ways in various localities. 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.’
Pottery shards found at Gromatukha site. (Image: Oksana Yanshina/ Science Direct)
Oliver Craig, Director of the BioArch Lab at the University of York, where the analyses were conducted, 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-author 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 site, where some of the pot sherds were found. Image: Oksana Yanshina
The Life-saving Importance of Pottery
Once developed, pottery quickly proved to be a 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’s 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. (Image: Khabarovsk Region Administration, @sergeyiss / The Siberian Times)
‘It was at the Gasya ancient settlement 80 kilometers 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 the first vessels were found at Gasya settlement, it was summer and 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 we looked closely and saw it was pottery. But it was so soft. We wrapped it into special paper and after two days it hardened, but was still quite loose, like cookies.”
Excavations at Goncharka-1 site. Image: Oksana Yanshina
“We were wondering about the purpose of the pottery. We observed from the very beginning that the vessels were covered with a thick layer of soot. Plus, inside there was a layer of residue 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.”
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Salmon spawning in one of the Amur River tributaries. (Image: Konstantin K. / The Siberian Times)
“So what else could they cook there? I also suggested that they could process and store cod-liver oil in their vessels. We see that these people used nets, most likely made of plant fiber (a 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 the winter season. We see that they smoked and dried fish , and obviously they cooked it.”
Amur River indigenous people are netting salmon in modern days. (Image: AiF / The Siberian Times)
“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 were able to stay at the same place during the winter season, having stored a big amount of fish. They had no need to relocate with migrating animals, as did hunters. Their dwellings were dug into the ground. They dug round holes, put the pillars and covered them with roof of birch bark and turf.
‘It is great that the resent research from our international team confirmed our suggestions and helped us to get closer to understanding this unique and amazing culture.”
The article, originally titled, ‘ Cooking secrets of the Neolithic era revealed in groundbreaking scientific tests ’ first appeared on The Siberian Times and has been republished with permission.