Flakes of charred material scraped from shards of ancient pots are the earliest direct evidence of pottery use for cooking, a new study suggests. Possibly the biggest surprise, scientists say, is that these prehistoric chefs weren't part of an early agricultural community, and they weren't cooking grain: They were hunter-gatherers who lived in Japan during the waning phases of the last ice age, and they were apparently boiling up a seafood stew.
Pottery was invented somewhere in eastern Asia between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago, but exactly where and when—and particularly why—isn't clear. Indeed, virtually nothing is known about how the first pots were used, says Oliver Craig, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom. Regardless of why such vessels were invented, they undoubtedly offered new and attractive ways to process and consume food, he notes. Layers of blackened material on the inner surfaces of some pot shards, many of them palm-sized or smaller, hinted that the vessels had been used for cooking, but scientists hadn't performed detailed studies to confirm the notion.