Dating of “oldest pottery” from China is based on assumptions

The evidence is consistent with biblical history


<bu.edu/asianarc/field_projects/fp_yuchanyan2.html> Yuchanyan
Careful documentation of Yuchanyan Cave stratigraphy (D. Cohen).

Pottery recovered from a cave at Yuchanyan in Hunan Province, China, is hailed as being the oldest known.1

Elisabetta Boaretto of Israel’s Weizmann Institute led a team of scientists to the site in 2005, where they carefully excavated areas of the cave. They recorded the arrangement of the strata on the floor and collected samples of bone, charcoal, pottery and other human artifacts.2

Yuchanyan is one of a number of limestone caves in the southern part of the Yangzi River basin of China that humans occupied. Others include Xianrendong and Diaotonghuan in Jiangxi Province and Miaoyan in Guangxi Province. Over the years, researchers have found the remains of deer, boar, birds, tortoises and fish in these caves. The most significant finds, however, were human artifacts, including broken pieces of pottery, estimated to have been fired at temperatures as high as 500 deg C, and tools made from stones, bones and shells.

Reports about human origins tend to catch the attention of the world’s media, especially when they claim older and older dates. These ideas impact our personal view of who we are, where we came from and why we are here. They also impact the way we live. In other words, these reports are highly relevant to the cultural wars raging in the west at present.

Careful excavation techniques

Boaretto et al. carefully excavated the site in small increments of depth and found that the sediments consisted of long, thin lenses of interfingered ash, clay and fine gravel. By working out their relationships they established their relative timing. In an attempt to determine the absolute dates the researchers carefully recovered bone and charcoal samples for carbon-14 analysis. The date they obtained for the pottery was between 18,300 and 15,430 years ago, which would put it among the world’s oldest.3

<bu.edu/asianarc/field_projects/fp_yuchanyan1.html> Ceramic vessel
Reconstruction of pottery vessel excavated from Yuchanyan Cave (D. Cohen).

This claim hinges on the carbon-14 dates, and these are calculated from the measured concentration of carbon-14 in the samples. Advances in technology over recent decades means carbon-14 atoms can be counted with great precision. However, the dates calculated still require a number of assumptions to be made about the past, including the carbon-14 concentration in the earth’s atmosphere and whether the sample has been contaminated. Unfortunately none of these assumptions can be known for certain because we cannot make observations in the past. For decades, researchers have been attempting to check the carbon-14 dates against an independent dating method but no independent dating method exists. Calibration curves have been produced using sequences of tree-rings and lake sediments but these calibrations are still based on assumptions (see: Tree ring dating).

The global Flood is the most significant event that affected the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere in the past, but scientists ignore this, assuming it never happened. The Flood disrupted the carbon reservoirs on Earth. During the Flood, volcanic eruptions blasted carbon dioxide (low in carbon-14) into the atmosphere, vast quantities of vegetation (containing carbon) were buried under sediment, carbon dioxide was dissolved in the oceans, carbon was incorporated into the vast formations of carbonate rocks and changes in the earth’s magnetic fields affected the cosmic shield, changing the rate of production of carbon-14. Creation scientists estimate that proportion of carbon-14 in the atmosphere relative to carbon-12 was much lower after the Flood, which would give dates that are very old.4 They suggest it rapidly increased in the early post-Flood period. It has still not wholly recovered from this deviation from equilibrium. Carbon-14 can also be affected locally by volcanic eruptions causing dates to be too old (see Much-inflated carbon-14 dates from subfossil trees: a new mechanism). In fact, the carbon-14 content measured from the cave in Yuchanyan could be used to obtain a preliminary estimate of the carbon-14 content of the atmosphere in the area at the time, assuming the occupation was early post-Flood.

Dates easily dismissed

Researchers recognize that published dates are based on many unprovable assumptions so they have no hesitation dismissing dates they do not agree with. Boaretto et al. did just that in their latest paper. They quoted the previously published dates for the pottery ranging from 16,000 to 10,000 years. These disagree with their result by 2,000 to 5,000 years, yet they simply dismiss the previous work by saying it was not systematic.

Others already are questioning the results of Boaretto et al. Dr Tracey Lu, an anthropologist from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted that the dates are older than dates for similar pottery found in several places in East Asia, including Japan. She said that she would have expected the pottery throughout the area to have been produced more or less at the same time. Someone will have to give in on the issue of dating, but who?

The published dates give the impression of being precise and absolute but in reality they are subjective and flexible. One classic example of this concerns the dating of Aboriginal remains from New South Wales, Australia.5 In the late 1960s a buried skeleton, called Mungo Man, was dated by carbon-14 at 24,000 years, which was the oldest date measured at that time for Aboriginal occupation in Australia. Twenty years later, a different dating method gave an age of 42,000 years, so the carbon-14 dates were abandoned and the duration of Aboriginal occupation revised upward. Then in 1999 researchers, using five different methods, obtained a date of 62,000 years. This date has become popular with tourist guides in Australia, but many geologists won’t accept the new date because it contradicts the big-picture view of human evolution world-wide.

Biblical framework

Archaeological reports always interpret the evidence within the standard, long-age evolutionary framework for human origins. These reports make no reference to any other types of evidence from the culture that would contradict the evolutionary paradigm. It is not that alternative ideas are weighed and eliminated on the basis of evidence; they are treated as if they did not exist.

But, the interpretation of the data hinges on the dates. If we leave the dates to one side, we discover that the data can be interpreted quite nicely within the biblical framework of history. The early settlement of China began after the dispersion from the Tower of Babel (c 2,200 BC), when the first immigrants migrated eastward across Asia from the Middle East. The early Chinese settlers, like all other people on Earth, were descended from Noah and his family, who survived the global Flood that destroyed the earth (c 2,300 BC).

Boaretto et al., describe how the people who lived in these caves in China were the predecessors of the people who lived in the “Neolithic” villages on the alluvial plain of the Yangzi River, supposedly 10,000 years ago.6 Within the evolutionary paradigm, anthropologists have the impression that cave dwellers were primitive and unintelligent because they were less evolved. But people still live in caves today. If we ignore the dates the evidence is consistent with biblical history. The first arrivals from the Middle East into the area would likely have lived in caves. This would have been convenient until they had time to build villages. (See The stone age—a figment of the imagination? and The people that forgot time.)

When modern anthropologists interpret the evidence from their digs, they tend to ignore the local cultural memories as of no consequence, effectively imposing a western evolutionary stamp onto their past. However, a biblical worldview provides a framework that harmonizes and respects the heritage of the culture. From China there are abundant lines of evidence consistent with this biblical scenario:

  • The Chinese characters used in writing preserve a remarkable memory of their ancient cultural history, pre-Flood and pre-Babel (see Chinese characters and Genesis and Noah’s Ark hidden in ancient Chinese characters).
  • The Chinese name for God, Shang Di, means Lord on High and can be identified with the creator God of the Bible (see The original “unknown” god of China).
  • The Border Sacrifice made at the Temple of Heaven sacrifice once each year by the emperor had a striking similarity to the Hebrew sacrificial system, pointing to a common heritage.7
  • Rather than developing over thousands of years, the culture and technology of China appeared suddenly, consistent with being carried by the first immigrants from the Middle East.


The claim that the latest pottery find in Yuchanyan is the oldest known to science is based entirely on carbon-14 dating. This is not an objective measurement of time, but depends upon multiple assumptions about the past, which are not established. The archaeological findings are consistent with biblical history, when we take into account the effect of the global Flood on Earth’s carbon-14 balance, and the migration of a post-Flood population from the Middle East into Asia after the Babel dispersion. As well as explaining the archaeological findings in Yuchanyan, such an interpretation is also consistent with other knowledge of Chinese history, including the advanced technology, culture and oral history carried to China by the earliest settlers.

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Published: 11 June 2009


  1. Palmer, J., “Oldest pottery” found in China, BBC News, 1 June 2009; <news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8077168.stm>. Return to text.
  2. Boaretto, E., and 12 others, Radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone collagen associated with early pottery at Yuchanyan Cave, Hunan Province, China, PNAS Early Edition, 3 June 2009, <pnas.org/content/early/2009/06/01/0900539106.full.pdf html>. Return to text.
  3. Technically, the dates were quoted as “cal BP” meaning that the calculated c-14 age was adjusted by a calibration curve. Return to text.
  4. What about carbon dating? in: Batten, D. (ed.), The Creation Answers Book, Creation Book Publishers, pp. 67–86, 2008; <https://dl0.creation.com/articles/p068/c06801/chapter4.pdf> Return to text.
  5. Walker, T., The dating game, Creation 26(1):36–39, 2003; <https://creation.com/the-dating-game>. Return to text.
  6. Boaretto et al., ref 2, p.1. Return to text.
  7. Chang Kei Thong, Faith of Our Fathers: God in ancient China, China Publishing Group Orient Publishing Center, Shanghai, China, pp. 108–151, 2006. Return to text.

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