Ancient Agriculture in China Predates Rice Domestication: Tropical Palm Diet

First Posted: May 17, 2013 11:22 AM EDT

China wasn't known for its agriculture until domesticated rice was introduced. Yet now, archaeologists have made an intriguing find. They've discovered that people in subtropical China may have practiced agriculture 5,000 years ago--long before the arrival of rice in the region.

Rice cultivation in southern China began after domesticated strains arrived along the Lower Yangtze River. Until now, researchers believed that this event is what sparked the beginning of formal agriculture in the area. Yet poor organic preservation in the study region meant that traditional archaeobotany techniques weren't possible, and left many questions about the history of these people.

In order to find out a little bit more about the region and the advent of agriculture, the researchers employed a new technique--ancient starch analysis. With this new method, they examined grinding stones from the era, pulling small quantities of sediment from the tiny pits and cracks that riddled the tools' surfaces. They made some surprising finds that were overlooked before now.

"Our research shows that there was something much more interesting going on in the subtropical south of China 5,000 years ago than we had first thought," said Huw Barton from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, in a news release. "Starch was well-preserved and there was plenty of it. While some of the starch granules we found were species we might expect to find on grinding and pounding stones, ie. Some seeds and tuberous plants such as freshwater chestnuts, lotus root and the fern root, the addition of starch from palms was totally unexpected and very exciting."

The findings show that these ancient people were actually using tropical palms as a food source. These palms can store prodigious quantities of starch which can be bashed and washed out of the trunk pith, dried as flour and then eaten. Although not particularly tasty, it is reliable and can be processed year round. In fact, many communities in the tropics still use these palms as a food source today.

The fact that two or three species of these palms were present in the ancient samples, though, seems to hint that the stationary groups of people may have planted the palms themselves. Most people that use palms are usually mobile, moving from one palm stand to another as they exhaust the clump. Since the people in this area were sedentary, though, it's likely they were growing these palms.

The findings show that the onset of agriculture in this area was far earlier than anyone expected. In addition, the study reveals a little bit more about the ancient history of this region.

The study is published in the journal PLOS One.

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