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History of Rice, Part One

The Origins of Rice Domestication in China

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Botanical Drawing of Oryza Sativa

Botanical Drawing of Oryza Sativa

Mike Licht, Nation's Capital

Today, rice (Oryza species) feeds more than half the world's population, and accounts for 20 percent of the world's total calorie intake. Although a staple in diets worldwide, rice is central to the economy and landscape of wider East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian ancient and modern civilizations. Particularly in contrast to Mediterranean cultures, which are primarily based on wheat bread, Asian cooking styles, food textural preferences and feasting rituals are based on consumption of this vital crop.

Rice grows on every continent in the world except Antartica, and has 21 different wild varieties and three distinct cultivated species: Oryza sativa japonica, domesticated in what is today central China by about 7,000 years BC, Oryza sativa indica, domesticated/hybridized in the Indian subcontinent about 2500 BC, and Oryza glabberima, domesticated/hybridized in west Africa between about 1500 and 800 BC.

Earliest Evidence

The oldest evidence of rice consumption identified to date includes four grains of rice recovered from the Yuchanyan Cave, a rock shelter in Dao County, Hunan Province in China. Some scholars associated with the site have argued that these grains seem to represent very early forms of domestication, having characteristics of both japonica and sativa. Culturally, the Yuchanyan site is associated with the Upper Paleolithic/incipient Jomon, dated between 12,000 and 16,000 years ago.

Rice phytoliths (some of which appeared to be identifiable to japonica) were identified in the sediment deposits of Diaotonghuan Cave, located near Poyang Lake in the middle Yangtse river valley radiocarbon dated about 10,000-9000 years before the present. Additional soil core testing of the lake sediments revealed rice phytoliths from rice of some sort present in the valley before 12,820 BP.

However, other scholars argue that although these occurrences of rice grains in archaeological sites such as Yuchanyan and Diaotonghuan caves represent consumption and/or use as pottery temper, they do not represent evidence of domestication.

Origins of Rice in China

Oryza sativa japonica was derived solely from Oryza rufipogon, a poor-yielding rice native to swampy regions that required intentional manipulation of both water and salt, and some harvest experimentation. Just when and where that occurred remains somewhat controversial.

There are four regions that are currently considered possible loci of domestication in China: the middle Yangtze (Pengtoushan culture, including such sites as at Bashidang); the Huai River (including the Jiahu site) of southwest Henan province; the Houli culture of Shandong province; and the lower Yangtze River Valley. Most but not all scholars point to the lower Yangtze River as the likely origin location, which at the end of the Younger Dryas (between 9650 and 5000 BC) was the northern edge of the range for O. rufipogon. Younger Dryas climatic changes in the region included the increase of local temperatures and summer monsoon rainfall amounts, and the inundation of much of the coastal regions of China as the sea rose an estimated 60 meters (~200 feet).

Early evidence for the use of wild O. rufipogon has been identified at Shangshan and Jiahu, both of which contained ceramic vessels tempered with rice chaff, dated between 8000-7000 BC. By about 5,000 BC, domesticated japonica is found throughout the Yangtse valley, including large amounts of rice kernels at such sites as TongZian Luojiajiao (7100 BP) and Hemuda (7000 BP). By 6000-3500 BC, rice and other Neolithic lifestyle changes were spread throughout southern China. Rice reached Southeast Asia into Vietnam and Thailand (Hoabinhian period) by 3000-2000 BC.

The domestication process was likely a gradual one, lasting between 7000 and 4000 BC. Changes from the original plant are recognized as the location of rice fields outside of perennial swamps and wetlands, and non-shattering rachis.

Sources

This article on the domestication of rice is a part of the About.com Guide to Plant Domestications, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Primary Sources

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Itzstein-Davey F, Taylor D, Dodson J, Atahan P, and Zheng H. 2007. Wild and domesticated forms of rice (Oryza sp.) in early agriculture at Qingpu, lower Yangtze, China: evidence from phytoliths. Journal of Archaeological Science 34(12):2101-2108.

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