Archaeobotany of Neolithic Caoxieshan

Caoxieshan: 6000 year-old rice fields


Caoxieshan is a site of Neolithic field systems, rice paddies, in Jiangsu Province, China, near the city of Suzhou. It has been excavated by the Suzhou Museum. It is dated to the Late Majiabang cultural period, i.e. ca. 4200-4000 BC. Previous excavations there in 1998-1999 revealed a complex of small field features, normally less than 5 meters across/diameter, cut into the sterile natural soils. Similar features were later excavated at the nearby site of Chuodun and a later (Songze Period) site of Chenghu. The infill of these features suggest soils that were rich in clay & organics comparable to analogue of rice field soils, and with high concentrations of rice bulliform phytoliths. (For an English language discussion of these site in the context of early rice agriculture, see Fuller and Qin (2009) “Water Management and Labour in the Origins and Dispersal of Asian Rice” in World Archaeology 41(1). Previous excavations did not include large, scale systematkic sampling for archaeobotanical remains, although the small assemblage of hand-collected plant remains at Suzhou Museum were studied by Dr. Fuller in 2008.

New excavations were carried out in April 2008 at Caoxieshan, by the Suzhou Museum archaeology team, directed by Professor Ding, Jin-long. This was a rescue excavation in advance of construction of a nre high-speed rail line between Shanghai and Beijing. Dr. Ling Qin and Dr. Fuller joined the excavations to help establish an archaeobotanical sampling and flotation program.


Recovered samples are now undergoing laboratory analysis. As would be expected they are rich in the grain and chaff remains of rice, wetland annuals and sedges that are likely rice field weeds, and some other gathered species, such as the aquatic foxnut (Euryale ferox). Laboratory work is ongoing, but includes rice remains in many forms, from incompletely formed (immature) grains to fully mature grains, and a mixture of spikelet base moprhologies including domestic-type non-shattering, wild-type shattering, and "stalked" types that may be immature wild or domesticated. For example illustrations, see the Antiquity Project-Gallery contribution on the continuing debate about the study of Lower Yangzte rice domestication.

These assemblages offer the opportunity to characterize early paddy-field weed flora and to compare this flora and rice domestication status with earlier assemblages like that from Tianluoshan This constitutes one of the major sites being studies as part of a major NERC-funded research project on ‘The Identification of Arable Rice Systems in Prehistory.

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