Ceramics is the first of our fire crafts, discovered from our earliest additional source of energy around the hearths of Homo sapiens sapiens, the only species that needs sources of energy additional to the food we eat. Like so many other animals we use the energy stored in the plants or animals that we eat; but unlike the others we have to find and use other sources of energy, beginning with the mastery of fire. Why? Because we have opted for learning rather than instinct as the way to transform our helpless offspring into young people capable of reproducing our species. Learning is possible only in the context of a culture. The energy from the food we eat is enough to sustain our own lives, but to create a culture that our youth can learn, we need an additional source of energy.
Initially this extra energy source was our mastery of fire. Overcoming our fear of flames, learning to control them, keeping them burning but constrained within a hearth were among the first engineering lessons for hominids. According to Brian Fagan’s 2004 text, The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World (Thames & Hudson), Homo erectus is known to have cooked food over a blaze, and may therefore have tended what could be our earliest evidence of a campfire that burned for several days 1.6 million years ago. The oldest hearths associated with our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, have been found in Kebara Cave in what is now Israel, dating from 60,000 years ago.
The mastery of fire extended our habitat and the range of foods we could eat, but it also provided a hearth around which we could assemble to transmit our cultures to the people gathered there, undoubtedly for warmth but also for community. So our first extra source of energy made possible our uniquely human cultures of community, the ways we live together. Singing, dancing, telling stories embellished with masks and costumes around the hearth, we began the education of our children, ensuring that they would learn and be able to continue our notions of what it means to be human, as they grew to an age where they could have children of their own.
Some of the people gathered around those hearths may have brought along baskets they were weaving or had woven from reeds, rushes, twigs, grass, palm fronds, bamboo or other plants in the area. Some of those baskets may have been lined with mud or clay so that they could hold liquids. If some of those lined baskets were left too close to the fire, the hardening of the clay into the shape of a bowl, marked with the criss-cross of the burnt out basketry, would have been discovered. So ceramics became the first of our fire crafts, one of our earliest products of cultural change to arise from an extra energy source.
For the first time humankind had created a new material and new shapes and forms not found in nature. Our earliest pottery dates from around 15,000 to 12,000 years ago, found on sites in the Amur River valley in eastern Russia, in the Yangzi River valley of China, and on the islands of Japan, where ten millennia of pottery production has given the name Jomon (which means ‘cord-marked’) to the entire culture. Remarkably, from the beginning Jomon ceramics were not only utilitarian but were also decorative: large and powerful pieces of Jomon clay sculpture accompany or even pre-date the earliest storage vessels there. Ceramic sculpture is among the first works of art made possible by our earliest extra energy source, the mastery of fire.