According to Prof. Li Zhiyan’s chapter, “Prehistoric Earthenware”, in Chinese Ceramics (Yale University Press, 2010), Neolithic earthenware began to emerge in large numbers between 8000 – 6000 B.C.E.
However, for the earliest dated archeological example, he cites a finding published by Prof. Zhao Chaohong of Peking University, which asserts that some 17,000-year-old pottery pieces have been discovered in China.
It seems that this date has been since pushed earlier: Harvard’s Ofer Bar-Yosef and his team of archaeologists have unearthed fragments of simple concave vessels from Xianrendong Cave. Radiocarbon dating has yielded an age of 19,000 to 20,000 years old. According to Bar-Yosef et al, these early examples were produced by mobile foragers who hunted and gathered during the Late Glacial Maximum, and may have once served as cooking devices.
This finding also suggests that the Xianrendong ceramics were made …
- 2000 to 3000 years older than other pottery (so far) found in East Asia and elsewhere
- 10 millennia or more before the emergence of agriculture
While Neolithic pottery has been unearthed in both northern (Nanzhuangtou, Hebei; Xinluo culture, Liaoning; Inner Mongolia) and southern China (Yuchanyan & Pengtoushan, Hunan), Prof. Bar-Yosef’s finding was excavated from Xianrendong cave, which is a mere 100 miles from Jingdezhen, China’s de facto capital for porcelain production since the 14th century.
In a NY Times article, Prof. Bar-Josef explained China’s headstart in pottery making along gastronomical terms:
“What it seems is that in China, the making of pottery started 20,000 years ago and never stopped. The Chinese kitchen was always based on cooking and steaming; they never made, as in other parts of Asia, breads. The kitchen of the Middle East was probably based on barbecues and pita breads. For pita breads, you don’t have to have pottery — you can grind the seeds and mix it with water, and make it over the fire.”
Cooking traditions aside, the delta regions along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers has historically been blessed with rich deposits of clay, which is necessary for any production of ceramics. Prof. Li Zhiyan has also pointed out that many Chinese soils good for agriculture are also particularly well-suited for pottery (such a river valley sediment soil, red clays, yellow clays, and black clays.) This convergence of utility proved encouraging to the development of long-term, stable human communities.
It should be further noted that Prof. Bar-Josef’s work in Xianrendong is not novel; the region is a well-known archeological area, and teams of Chinese scientists have been making archeological discoveries there since the at least the 1960s. The Bar-Josef discovery is however indeed the oldest known example yet uncovered.