Rice And Early Agriculture In China

Today, 11% of the world’s arable land is planted in rice. This staple grain provides half the diet for 1.6 billion people; an additional 400 million people depend on the plant for at least 25% of their food. In fact, among the world’s major grain crops, rice is the only plant that is harvested almost solely for human consumption.

Yet despite its world wide significance, we know relatively little about how or where rice was first domesticated. It was originally indigenous to the tropics. Rice is an annual grass that shares many characteristics with wheat, barley, oats, and rye. The rice plant belongs to the genus Oryza. Oryza contains two cultivated species, the Asian Oryza sativa and the West African Oryza glaberrima.

Asia seems to have been the focus for early experimentation and cultivation of O. sativa. Recent archaeological research in South China has found that rice was already an important component of the diet by 6000 B.C. Large quantities of rice stalks, grains, and husks were preserved at the waterlogged prehistoric village of Ho-mu-tu, excavated between 1973 and 1978. The settlement contains houses raised on wooden piles above a lakeshore. Both wild and domesticated varieties have been identified at Ho-mu-tu, making this some of the earliest domesticated rice in the world. Remains of bottle gourds, water chestnuts, and sour jujubes were recovered, as were acorns and other nuts. The faunal assemblage includes wild deer, elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, and turtle, as well as the domesticated water buffalo, dog, and pig. Cord-impressed pottery was found at Ho-mu-tu.

Wheat and barley along with larger quantities of a locally domesticated grain (millet) and domesticated pigs have been found in early agricultural village sites in China. This has led many to believe that the idea of agriculture may have been taken from the Middle East rather than independently developed in China. However, information about the Chinese Neolithic has undergone a major transformation. Thousands of new Neolithic sites have been identified. Early Neolithic sites in North China with millet and pigs have now been dated to between 5,000 and 7,000 B.C. At south China sites, the staple food plant was rice, not millet. The origin of agriculture now appears to have been an indigenous process in North and South China. In China is appears that local cultigens are more abundant and earlier than imported domesticates such as wheat.

The best known Chinese Neolithic site is Ban-po-ts’un (banpo; pronounced baan paw). It is not the oldest, but rather the easrliest to have been excavated extensively. Banpo covers five to seven hectares (12.5 to 17.5 acres). Roughly 100 houses, both circular and square in shape, were surrounded by a defensive drainage ditch. The occupation at Ban-po was long and continuous. In one area, five superimposed house floors were uncovered suggesting continuous remodeling and rebuilding.

Many of the houses were semisubterranean and about 3 to 5 m (10 to16 ft) in diameter. Floors were typically about a meter below the ground surface. Each house had timber beams that rested on stone bases, supporting a steeply pitched thatched roof. Floors and interior walls were plastered with clay and straw. One or two circular or pear-shaped fire pits, modeled in clay, were situated at the center of most of the dwellings. Storage pits and animal pens were interspersed among the houses at the center of the settlement.

At Banpo, the principal crop was millet which was cultivated in the rich soils that surround the village. Such agricultural tools as bone hoes, polished stone adzes, axes, knives, and digging-stick weights were abundant at the site. Chestnuts, hazelnuts, and pinenuts supplemented the grain diet. The inhabitants of Banpo grew hemp, probably for use as a fiber. Silk production is suggested by a neatly sliced silkworm cocoon that was recovered. Numerous spindle whorls, for spinning thread, and bone needles also were found.

Pigs and dogs were the principal domesticated animals, although cattle, sheep, and goats also were present. Bone and quartz arrow points, bone fishhooks, and net-sinkers all were found, along with plentiful bones of several varieties of deer. Thus hunting and fishing contributed to the diet at Ban- po.

Banpo has yielded more than 500,000 pieces of pottery. Six pottery kilns were recovered beyond the ditch at the east side of the settlement, outside the residential zone. Most of the vessels were handmade into a distinctive red ware. While cooking pots tend to be coarse and gritty, water vessels and foodserving bowls are made of a finer clay. Cord-marking is the most common surface decoration, although basket, textile, and finger-nail impressions are also used. The black-painted geomorphic and zoomorphic Yangshao designs are also applied primarily to bowls and jars.

The inhabitants of Banpo were buried two ways. Infants and small children were placed in large redware pottery jars and interred near the houses. A cemetery for adults was located outside the enclosing ditch at the north end of the settlement. Corpses were placed in pits two m (6.5 ft) deep in rows. Typically, each individual was buried individually in an extended position. Ceramic vessels were included with the body in most of the graves. The most elaborate burial was a child, who was placed in a wooden tomb that included a green jade pendant, a string of 63 bone disk beads, four ceramic vessels, and three stone pellets.

Toward the end of the occupation at Banpo, a large rectangular structure was erected on a manmade platform (20 by 12.5 m, or 65 by 41 ft) in the center of the village. The platform was ringed by a low wall that originally may have been the foundation for a wall of posts. This structure was plastered with a white limy substance that had been hardened by baking. The structure also had a hard earthen floor that appears to have been destroyed in a fire. Chinese archaeologists interpret the building as a communal assembly hall or clan house.