Piezonka (2020): Emergence of hunter-gatherer pottery in Urals and West Siberia

Miscellanea Archaeology & Prehistory Piezonka (2020): Emergence of hunter-gatherer pottery in Urals and West Siberia

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    Carlos Quiles

      The emergence of hunter-gatherer pottery in the Urals and West Siberia: New dating and stable isotope evidence by Piezonka et al. JAS (2020).


      The emergence of pottery among Stone Age hunter-gatherer societies of Eurasia constitutes one of the major open questions in Old World prehistory. Located halfway between the earliest Late Glacial cores of pottery production in East Asia, and Eastern Europe with forager ceramic starting around 6000 cal BC, the Urals and West Siberia are a key region in various scenarios currently under discussion. A lack of reliable absolute dates has been hindering an in-depth understanding of the temporal and spatial scales of the initial spread of the ceramic innovation. A Russian-German dating programme has now created a more reliable chronology of the early pottery phase, based on 28 AMS dates from across the study region. Taking freshwater reservoir effects into account, we can show that the earliest reliable evidence for pottery stems from the West Siberian forest steppes and Urals foothills, dating to the end of the 7th millennium cal BC. Over the following centuries, the innovation spread rapidly north into the taiga. Here, the early pottery horizon coincides with a unique set of innovations and intensification in the settlement system and the socio-economic sphere, including the appropriation of vast previously barely settled regions, the emergence of complex and even fortified settlements, and of ritual mounds. Pilot isotopic analyses of pottery charred crusts indicate diverse functions of the early vessels that were apparently not restricted to the processing of fish. The emerging wider picture indicates a surprisingly late, largely concurrent appearance of pottery in hunter-gatherer groups over extensive areas along the southern fringes of the taiga to both sides of the Urals at the end of the 7th millennium cal BC which is apparently not connected to the earlier, Late Pleistocene ceramic traditions in Trans-Baikalia and further East. Possible links to the 8.2 ka climatic event, other underlying triggers as well as the detailed chronology of these developments are still poorly understood and require further archaeological, biomolecular and typological studies.

      hunter-gatherer pottery Urals Siberia

      Interpretative suggestion of early pottery dispersals between Lake Baikal and North-East Europe, compared to the model by Jordan et al. (2016). White dots: sites with AMS dates presented in this paper (see Table 1), black dots: radiocarbon dated sites associated with early pottery in the Urals and West Siberia (selection, for a full list: see Supplementary Information SI2). For the regions surrounding the Urals and West Siberia, the new interpretation is based on Brunet (2011), Dolbunova, 2017; Vybornov et al. (2012); Zajtseva et al. (2016), disregarding foodcrust and TOC dates unless analysed by Bayesian modelling (illustration: H.Piezonka and T. Schreiber).

      From the Conclusions:

      The Urals and West Siberia play a crucial role for understanding the emergence and spread of the pottery innovation among hunter-gatherer communities across North Eurasia. Typological studies have suggested the (parallel) existence of two mayor technological-stylistic traditions in this region with various sub-groups forming a diverse and multi-facetted mosaic in space and time.

      In our study we have demonstrated on the basis of new AMS radiocarbon dates on pottery charred crust and bone samples that the earliest reliable evidence for pottery in the study region stems from the forest steppes and the Middle Trans-Ural foothills, dating to the last quarter of the 7th millennium cal BC. It is part of a wider horizon of the concurrent emergence of early pottery in hunter-gatherer communities in a wide area between the Baraba forest steppe in the East and the North Pontic and Caspian regions in the West, between Lake Aral in the south and the southern forest zone to both sides of the Urals in the north. This is followed by a rapid spread of the new ceramic technology into the taiga zone of West Siberia and the Urals where it becomes part of a set of substantial socio-economic innovations encompassing a starkly increased population density, new complex settlements including fortified sites, new substantial ritual sites, and economic intensification. While at the moment no connection to the Pleistocene pottery traditions further East can be drawn due to a time gap of several millennia, influences from the West, South-West, South and possibly also the Cis-Baikalian East seem plausible on typological and chronological grounds.

      Pilot analyses of bulk δ13C/δ15N isotopic ratios from charred crusts adhering to pottery and of animal bone reference samples suggest diverse functions of the early wares that were not restricted to the processing of fish for food. It is suggested that pottery played an important role in processing diverse seasonally abundant products and also in producing storable food stuffs and other materials such as oils, glues and tars. Judging from the substantial typological diversity of the early wares in the study region, social roles of the pottery that are connected to socio-cultural transformations during the innovation horizon around 6,000 cal BC are likely.

      I am changing the maps accordingly.

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