Bits of the oldest known pottery, some 2,000 years older than previously found pieces, have been uncovered in China, researchers said in the US journal Science on Thursday.
The fragments were believed to belong to a community of roving hunter-gatherers some 20,000 years ago and apparent scorch marks indicate they may have been used in cooking.
However, their early dating, determined by a recent radiocarbon analysis of the nearby sediment, indicates that the pottery came long before the advent of agriculture, perhaps by as many as 10,000 years.
And the pieces are older than other similar finds in hunter-gatherer contexts in China, Japan, and the Russian Far East, said the study.
The pottery was found in the Xianrendong Cave in northern Jiangxi Province, China, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the Yangtze River.
Radiocarbon dating shows that the cave was likely used by people from about 29,000 years ago until 17,500 years ago. It was then abandoned and reoccupied from about 14,500 years ago until 12,000 years ago.
The earliest pottery found in the cave is believed to date back about 20,000 years ago, said the study by researchers at Peking University in China, Boston University and Harvard University in the United States, and Eberhard Karls University in Germany.
That period was known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), about 25,000 to 19,000 years ago.
An accompanying commentary by Gideon Shelach, professor in department of East Asian Studies, Hebrew University suggested that even though the pottery may predate farming, "scarcity of resources during the LGM forced people to develop better ways of collecting and processing food."