Researchers in China have dug up the oldest known pottery. How ancient is it? The late Paleolithic: 14,000 to 21,000 years old, according to a study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The pieces were most likely made and used by early foragers in the Yangzi Basin in the Hunan Province.

Radiocarbon dating of nearby charcoal and bones has pinpointed one fragment to be about 18,000 years old. It and other findings provide "a much clearer understanding of the chronology of [the cave] and the age of the pottery found in this site, as compared to other… caves in East Asia," the authors report.

The new pieces prove to be older than pottery previously uncovered in China and Japan, but not nearly as old as early ceramic figures, such as the Czech Venus of Dolni Vestonice (25,000 to 29,000 years old). 

One of the vessels reconstructed from the recently found shards is a Chinese fu cauldron, an 11.4-inch (29-centimeter) tall vase with a pointed base and 12.2-inch (31-centimeter) round rim. Infrared spectra testing showed the pottery was fired at between 752 and 932 degrees Fahrenheit (400 and 500 degrees Celsius).

The authors conclude that the find "supports the proposal made in the past that pottery making by foragers began in south China."

Image of sediments from the excavation site courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences