The First Pot Made in America

A story circulates about how pottery began: “Once upon a time a caveman coated reed baskets with clay.  When the baskets no longer served he threw them away.  Some baskets landed in the fire.  When the reeds burned off the fired clay remained.  Seeing the hardness of the fired clay, the caveman got an idea…”

An entertaining image.  But pottery’s historical beginnings are far more complex, and more fascinating.  Pottery “began” in different places at different times for a different reason in each locale.  In the America’s, evidence points to a surprising birth (or at least ‘first’) place: the Brazilian Rain Forest.  Over 7,500 years ago, people of the Mina culture were making small bowl shapes resembling the later “tecomate” or cooking dish.  Some of these first pots are plain, others are elaborately incised.  Even at this early date the Mina people knew to temper their clay with sand or ground shells to improve thermal shock.  In fact none of the excavations done so far have dug down to the earliest inhabited layers.

Who were these people and what were they doing?  Nobody can say.  Later inhabitants of the area seemed to use similar bowls to create intoxicating brews for ceremonial and trade reasons. 

Recognizing these people’s accomplishments might not assist in marketing wares today (unless you’re into intoxicating brews).  But I believe that any attempt to understand the family tree to which we as potters and as humans belong leads to an intrinsic benefit: Respect for our craft and our family.

Readings:

The Emergence of Pottery.  Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies. Barnett and Hoopes, ed.s.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 1995.

1491.  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Charles C. Mann.  Knopf/New York.  2005.

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