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Yuchanyan Cave (Hunan Province, China)

Upper Paleolithic Pottery in China


Approximate Location of Yuchanyan Cave in China

Approximate Location of Yuchanyan Cave in China

CIA World Factbook

Yuchanyan Cave is a karst rockshelter south of the Yangzi (or Yangtze) River basin in Daoxian county of Hunan province, China. It is one of several caves in the area which exhibit very good preservation and are known or suspected to have been inhabited by Upper Paleolithic and Early Neolithic hunter-gatherers (Jomon) during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene--others include Xianrendong and Diaotonghuan in Jiangxi Province and Miaoyan in Guangxi Province. Yuchanyan's deposits contained the remains of at least two ceramic pots, securely dated by associated radiocarbon dates at having been placed in the cave between 18,300-15,430 cal BP. Until the recent redating of Xianrendong, these sherds represented the earliest pottery ever discovered.

Yuchanyan's cave floor includes an area of 100 square meters, some 12-15 meters (~40-50 feet) wide on its east-west axis and 6-8 meters (~20-26 feet) wide on the north-south. The upper deposits were removed in historical period, and the remaining site occupation debris ranges between 1.2-1.8 meters (4-6 feet) in depth. All of the occupations within the site represent brief occupations by Late Upper Paleolithic people, between 21,000 and 13,800 BP. At the time of the earliest occupation, the climate in the region was warm, watery and fertile, with plenty of bamboo and deciduous trees. Over time, a gradual warming throughout the occupation occurred, with a trend towards replacing the trees with grasses. Towards the end of the occupation, the Younger Dryas (ca. 13,000-11,500 cal BP) brought increased seasonality to the region.

Plant and Animal Remains

Yuchanyan cave exhibited generally good preservation, resulting in the recovery of a rich archaeological assemblage of stone, bone and shell tools as well as a wide variety of organic remains, including both animal bone and plant remains.

Botanical species recovered from the cave's deposits include wild grapes and plums. Several rice opal phytoliths and husks have been identified, and some scholars have suggested that some of the grains illustrate incipient domestication. Mammals include bears, boar, deer, tortoises, and fish. The assemblage includes 27 different types of birds, including cranes, ducks, geese and swans; five kinds of carp; 33 kinds of shellfish.

The floor of the cave was purposefully covered with alternating layers of red clay and massive ash layers, which likely represent deconstructed hearths, rather than production of clay vessels.


The sherds from Yuchanyan are some of the earliest examples of pottery yet found. They are all dark brown, coarsely made pottery with a loose and sandy texture. The pots were hand-built and low-fired (ca. 400-500 degrees C); kaolinite is a major component of the fabric. The paste is thick and uneven, with walls up to 2 centimeters thick. The clay was decorated with cord impressions, on both the interior and exterior walls. Enough sherds were recovered for the scholars to reconstruct a large, wide mouthed vessel (round opening 31 cm in diameter, vessel height 29 cm) with a pointed bottom; this style of pottery is known from much later Chinese sources as a fu cauldron.

Stone tools recovered from Yuchanyan include cutters, points and scrapers. Polished bone awls and shovels, perforated shell ornaments with notched-tooth decorations also were found within the assemblages.

Archaeology at Yuchanyan

Excavations at Yuchanyan were conducted beginning in the 1980s, with extensive investigations between 1993-1995 led by Jiarong Yuan of the Hunan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology; and again between 2004 and 2005, under the direction of Yan Wenming.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Invention of Pottery , the guide to the Jomon and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Boaretto E, Wu X, Yuan J, Bar-Yosef O, Chu V, Pan Y, Liu K, Cohen D, Jiao T, Li S et al. 2009. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone collagen associated with early pottery at Yuchanyan Cave, Hunan Province, China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(24):9595-9600.

Prendergast ME, Yuan J, and Bar-Yosef O. 2009. Resource intensification in the Late Upper Paleolithic: a view from southern China. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(4):1027-1037.

Wang W-M, Ding J-L, Shu J-W, and Chen W. 2010. Exploration of early rice farming in China. Quaternary International 227(1):22-28.

Yang X. 2004. Yuchanyan Site at Daoxian, Human province. Pp. 34-35 in: Yang X, editor. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past., Volume 2. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Zhang W, and Jiarong Y. 1998. A preliminary study of ancient excavated rice from Yuchanyan site, Dao County, Hunan province, PR China. Acta Agronomica Sinica 24(4):416-420.

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