East Asian Grain Cultivation Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The beginnings of grain cultivation in East Asia have been traced back to Neolithic village sites in the middle and lower Yangtze River regions.

Summary of Event

Although China’s history is ancient and well documented, the origins of agriculture in this Asian cradle of civilization predate its written history by thousands of years. There are five “sacred foods” in Chinese lore: rice, millet, nuts, soybeans, and barley, all of which have been cultivated since prehistory. It is likely that their elevated status is due to both their nutritional value and the ease of long-term storage. Of these foods, domesticated rice has had the most wide-ranging effects throughout the world.

Rice chaff and husks have been found in pottery containers at Pengtoushan in the central Yangtze Valley, dated from between 9000 and 7800 b.c.e. No agricultural tools were discovered among the artifacts, and it is unclear whether this the rice was wild or cultivated. Many Asian archaeologists believe the latter is the case, based on study of plant remains from more than a hundred such early sites.

Bashidang, a site that has been carbon-dated to approximately 7540-7100 b.c.e., holds voluminous proof of rice cultivation. Like Pengtoushan, it is on the Dongting Lake plain in the middle Yangtze region. Bashidang is a stratified site with layers of rice paddies, dwellings, burials, polished stone tools, and many plant and animal remains. Its material culture traits seem directly descended from those found at Pengtoushan.

Hemudu, a lakeside village near the coast in the river’s lower reaches, provides a glimpse into the spread of rice culture and the material changes that had accompanied it by 5000 b.c.e. Besides the grains, stalks, and leaves of rice, there are other food remains such as sour dates and many varieties of fish. Hemudu also had tools for digging and spreading.

Geography and climate combined to create conditions for the agricultural revolution in China. Periods of cold, dry weather alternated with warmer periods, which allowed wild grains to spread profusely. The Yangtze basin had many lakes as well as seasonal flooding, which provided both rich soil and the periodically flooded fields that are optimal for rice’s growth cycle.

Most of the archaeological studies on these and other sites of early Chinese grain growing have taken place since the 1970’s. Although new findings could lead to new theories, it appears that grain cultivation in the Yangtze basin predates that of other areas in Asia. It may even predate the earliest known traces of barley cultivation elsewhere, which date back to 8000 b.c.e. and were found at the Netiv Hagdud site in present-day Israel. There is no evidence of contact between very early farmers in the Middle East and in China. Agriculture seems to have been invented independently in the two areas.

Along with rice, millet was also cultivated, as well as being grown in the Yellow River region of northern China. Millet, the grain of a number of different grasses, is hardier and thrives in a colder climate than rice, so it was a natural crop for the more northerly region to adopt. Ongoing contact between the two regions in prehistoric times is more than likely. Millet is relatively neglected today as a human food source, but its protein and vitamin content is high. Flatcakes, wine, and gruel made from millet have long been consumed in China.

A modern-day farmer plants rice in a paddy, much as Asians did in ancient times.

(Corbis)

Chinese mythology recognizes the importance of grain growing in several myths regarding its origin. Shen Nong (Shen Nung) is said to have been the first farmer, an agricultural god who invented the digging stick and the spade. His son Zhu is given credit for first growing millet. Another tradition tells of Zhou Qi (Chou Ch’i), who discovered how to grow edible plants as an abandoned child and in adulthood was made the official in charge of agriculture. Both versions ascribe the invention of agriculture to the need to feed a growing population. Whether or not this is historically true, the influence of population pressures is a persistent theme in Chinese history.

Significance

Rice and millet cultivation spread from China to the rest of Asia. Japan and Korea, Taiwan, the Southeast Asian countries, and India all built cultures with an agricultural base of rice cultivation. Grain cultivation is closely linked with solidification of permanent settlements and the domestication of animals. In China as in other places, the dog was the only animal to be domesticated before the agricultural revolution. The settled life and increased food supply of an agricultural lifestyle led, in China, to the early domestication of pigs and chickens, as well as oxen, goats, sheep, and cats. Throughout the world, the agricultural revolution marked a major change in the way that society was structured and functioned; in China, the revolution was centered on rice.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, Charles. “The Transition to Rice Cultivation in Southeast Asia.” In Last Hunters—First Farmers, edited by T. Douglas Price and Anne Birgette Gebauer. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of American Research Press, 1995. Describes climatic sequences and ties them into the earliest rice cultivation and related phenomena.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Meredith Sayles. Glorious Grasses: The Grains. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1998. Although written for a young audience, this book contains much historical detail, helpful diagrams, and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Normile, Dennis. “Yangtze Seen as Earliest Rice Site.” Science 275, no. 5298 (January 17, 1997): 309. Summarizes report by Chinese and Japanese archaeologists on 11,500-year-old rice-growing sites along the middle Yangtze. Also mentions a tentative report on a very early fortified town in the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yan, Wen-ming. “Origins of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry in China.” In Pacific Northeast Asia in Prehistory: Hunter-Fisher-Gatherers, Farmers, and Sociopolitical Elites, edited by C. Melvin Aikens and Song Nai Rhee. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1992. An introduction, including legendary backgrounds and a good discussion of both wetland and Yellow River dryland millet sites.

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