Mystery Pottery Points to 6,500-year-old Unknown Culture That May Have Lived Alongside One of Oldest Civilization in Americas

Researchers have found fragments of 6,500-year-old pottery in Ecuador from an unknown culture that may have lived alongside one of the oldest civilizations in the Americas.

An international team of archaeologists says that the find provides new insights into the origin of pottery technology in the region, according to a study published in the journal Antiquity.

The archaeologists uncovered the ceramics during excavations which began in 2015 at a site known as Real Alto on the country's Pacific coast. More than 40 fragments were found between depths of 30 and 40 inches.

The collection composing more than 40 sherds — referred to as the "San Pedro" complex — was subsequently radiocarbon dated to between 4,640 and 4,460 B.C.

These dates are intriguing, the researchers say, because they coincide with the early stages of the Valdivia culture, one of the oldest known settled cultures in the Americas. The ceramics of the Valdivia are renowned for being the oldest known pottery in the Western Hemisphere, according to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI.)

The pottery sherds are similar to others found at Real Alto and other sites in the 1970s and 1980s. While they bear similarities to those created by the Valdivia, they also display intriguing differences which suggest that they belong to another pottery-producing people who lived around the same time.

"The characteristics of San Pedro pottery differ considerably from the typical red-slipped and burnished Valdivia vessels, which are often decorated with more deliberate, smooth-sided incisions," the authors wrote in their study.

'The mass emergence of pottery was a kind of technical breakthrough associated with many aspects of human life and the level of economic development in different parts of the globe," Alexander Popov, leader of the expedition to Real Alto and an author of the study from the Far Eastern Federal University, Russia, said in a statement.

"Ceramic vessels belonging to different cultures developed simultaneously confirm that our ancestors had evolved in terms of cultural diversity," he said. "It is curious that, despite the different vectors of human development, in the technological sense we were moving in the same direction."

The next step, the researchers say, is to search for more signs of this unknown culture, to cast more light on their history.

The pottery created by the Valdivia dates back to the origins of the culture, according to NMAI. The distinctive female figurines that they created — characterized by their standing pose and small faces — have been associated with agricultural rituals.

San Pedro pottery
This is a sherd of an ancient ceramic vessel from the insufficiently studied San Pedro complex found on Real Alto site, Ecuador. FEFU