amazing Amazonian pottery (cont.)

Yuri Kuchinsky (
20 Aug 1996 19:28:22 GMT

pottery and diffusionism.

By Yuri Kuchinsky --

[Part 2]


More generally, what can be said about these matters in light of the
new data about earliest American pottery? Will it discredit
diffusionism? I don't believe so.

The book that I mentioned in my previous post, THE EMERGENCE OF
POTTERY, John Hoopes and W. Barnett, eds, Smithsonian, 1995, can be
very useful in putting all those things in their proper
perspectives. This book talks generally, among many other things,
about the emergence of earliest pottery around the world, about the
connection of pottery with the origins of agriculture, and about
diffusionism. This is a collection of the most recent research by
respected scholars in the field.

One basic idea emerges from this volume. It seems that most scholars
currently believe that it is not necessary to postulate a single
source or matrix for the invention of pottery. The _idea_ of pottery
may not have been such an unusual idea for earliest peoples.
Surveying earliest pottery in various parts of the globe,
researchers conclude that it is quite likely that the invention of
pottery could have occurred in a number of places independently.
Here, for instance, A. M. T. Moore talking about the earliest
pottery in Western Asia (specifically the area around Babylonia):

Indeed, the evidence does not support the idea of a
single place of origin but suggests, rather, that
pottery began to be made at about the same time over
much of Western Asia. (THE INCEPTION OF POTTING IN
cit., p. 44)

It is interesting that the earliest pottery in the African Sahara,
and around the Nile, goes back to about 10,000 years. Why did not
the idea of pottery manufacture travel west from there for such a
long time? An interesting question.

In this connection, we may also ask a broader question, Why was
pottery invented at all? This is, perhaps surprisingly, a rather
complex matter. Debates are still going on regarding the role of the
earliest pottery in primitive societies. It is also quite possible
that pottery played a different role in different societies, and at
different times in the same societies.

It has been commonly believed previously that the invention of
pottery came hand in hand with the invention of agriculture. As
early societies were settling down to cultivate crops -- so the
thinking went -- a greater need, perhaps a necessity, arose for them
to use pottery. Clearly, for migrant tribes pottery would have been
difficult to transport.

Much of the work in this volume counters some of these suppositions.
For one thing, the link between the invention of agriculture and the
invention of pottery seems now to be in doubt. Many cases have now
come to light of agricultural societies that did not use pottery
(e.g. in the case of Western Asia).

Their ancestors [i.e. the ancestors of the first potters
of the Golden Crescent] had been farmers for up to 2,000
years. (ibid, p. 44)

And vice versa, many pre-agricultural societies that used pottery
are now known.

But the link with _settled lifestyle_ does seem to be solid. Of
course, as we know from general pre-history, the earliest settled
societies that were not agricultural were the societies that emerged
around the utilisation of marine resources, i.e. the societies of
the earliest fisher-folk along the sea-coasts and near the rivers.
As it happens, the earliest known pottery in the world, the Jomon
potteries of southern Japan, were invented by such peoples.

The primary role of the most ancient pottery in various societies is
far from certain in all cases. Although we may _assume_ the most
utilitarian role for earliest pottery, i.e. in food preparation and
storage, this clearly was not always the case. There seems to have
been a lot of ritualistic/religious use in some societies at
earliest stages that was more important. Such was the case e.g. for
the earliest African pottery. The link with the utilitarian use
seems to be especially tenuous if we keep in mind that the use of
the earliest _ceramics_, going back around 30,000, was in the
manufacture of figurines and other ritual objects.

[Part 3 that concludes this article is coming up.]


#% Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto %#
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The world is governed more by appearance than by realities, so
that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as it
is to know it ========= Daniel Webster