Academic journal article Antiquity

Modelling the Diffusion of Pottery Technologies across Afro-Eurasia: Emerging Insights and Future Research

Academic journal article Antiquity

Modelling the Diffusion of Pottery Technologies across Afro-Eurasia: Emerging Insights and Future Research

Article excerpt


The origins of pottery and farming--and their roles in the European Neolithic--have occupied a central place in archaeological debate for over a century. Long assumed to be derived from a single origin in the Near East, these innovations now appear to have more complex and largely independent histories, extending beyond Europe and the Near East. There is now abundant evidence that in two areas, North Africa and East Asia, pottery was made by hunter-gatherer groups earlier than 10 000 cal BP. Modelling of available radiocarbon dates from across Africa and Eurasia indicates that pottery sites get younger with distance from each of these two potential source regions, and suggests that the earliest European pottery traditions may ultimately find their origins in one or both of these centres.

In this article, we focus on the emergence of pottery in the Old World and model its dispersal at continental scales using a dataset of radiocarbon dates from early pottery sites in Africa and Eurasia. This enables us to consider several related questions: where are the main centres of early pottery innovation? What was the pace, direction and timing of pottery dispersals out of these centres into adjacent regions? How, and via what routes, was the first pottery introduced into Europe? What role did pre-agricultural populations play in these early pottery origins and dispersals?

Among archaeologists in Western Europe, pottery has commonly been regarded as the definitive artefact of the prehistoric farmer (Barker 2006: 74), and its dispersal from the Near East into Europe as an integral feature of the Neolithic. It is probable that pottery did spread with farming from the Near East into some regions of Europe, making this 'consensus' story true, at least in part. The concept of a combined dispersal of pottery and farming is therefore central to what might be termed the 'Western' variant of the Neolithic. Archaeologists working in other parts of Eurasia have, however, identified a different sequence of developments. Across much of the eastern Baltic, Eastern Europe, Russia, Siberia and beyond, it was the independent emergence of pottery among hunting and gathering societies that became the definitive feature of an alternative 'Eastern' Neolithic not associated with agriculture.

If two different kinds of Neolithic were gathering pace across Holocene Eurasia, how, then, did these developments play out over time and space, and what was the relationship between them? In recent years, archaeologists have started to examine whether there were several different routes for the arrival of early pottery into Europe. For example, Davison et al. (2009) used mathematical modelling to examine possible contributions to European Neolithic pottery traditions. They confirmed the 'consensus' story of the Western Neolithic, with farming spreading with pottery from the Near East, but also identified a second Eastern Neolithic dispersal. This involved pottery uptake among hunter-gatherers, with the origins of these ceramic traditions probably located on the eastern margins of Europe, in the forest steppe of the southern Urals. Over the last ten years, a broader appreciation of this Eastern Neolithic has been growing. For example, a number of scholars now accept the possibility of an eastern origin for the pointed-base Ertebollc tradition (Hallgren 2004; Gronenborn 2009: 529; Piezonka 2015).

The relationship between the earliest East Asian pottery traditions and those apparently spreading into Eastern Europe from the forest-steppe zone of the southern Urals has also seen much rather speculative debate (Jordan & Zvelebil 2009). Many dates and derails pertaining to the earliest pottery traditions of inner Eurasia remain uncertain, although some have attempted to link early pottery traditions across eastern and western Siberia (Kuzmin & Vetrov 2007). In a preliminary attempt at a pan-Eurasian synthesis of available dates and materials based on data collected by Hommel (2009), Jordan and Zvelebil (2009: 68-72) generated a descriptive time-space mapping of early pottery radiocarbon dates from across Eurasia that appeared to lend preliminary support to a general east-west trend across Eurasia (Figure 1). …

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