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What we are doing:

Thanks to 3 years of funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) this project is looking at early rice agriculture by using science-based archaeology to learn about the interactions between humans and their environment in Asia from roughly 7,000 – 4,000 years ago.  Through the systematic recording of modern traditional farming techniques, we will create a unique record of rice ecology which we can compare to the archaeological record.  This comparison will provide an all new insight to the ways rice was domesticated, how agricultural systems spread, and how the interconnected development between rice and humans began.  


As part of this research we will also be looking at patterns of methane gas emissions from rice farming in the archaeological record.  Greenhouse gasses, created by methane emissions, can be recorded in early rice domestication and as agriculture developed across Asia.  Using comparative scientific approaches we hope to uncover just what sort of role rice played in early climate change, and how this global staple crop has impacted the environment throughout its complex relationship with humans. 

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How we will do it:

This project involves the study of modern farming sites across Asia in order to develop a model of rice and associated plants for each site.  This provides  a ‘modern analogue assemblage’ which indicates diagnostic factors attributed to the different methods of rice farming we study such as dryland, wetland paddy, irrigation, etc.  Our analyses have already suggested a new method for the archaeological study of rice agriculture that can be used by archaeologists and palaeoclimatologists as a new tool in understanding the wider context of rice sites across Asia. We are now further refining and testing these analogue model derived from modern rice field studies.


We can compare these models with evidence from the archaeological record. We have previously studied samples from sites in Eastern and Central China as well as some sites in India and early historic Sri Lanka (information on some of these sites can be found here). A major achievement previously was to clarify is at what point domestication occurred in China, based on preserved evidence for morphological change in rice, and to set that against our new weed flora and phytolith assemblage evidence for how rice was being cultivated as it was domesticated. These data indicate it was grown wet in inundated wetland margin, but in conditions that were kept somewhat drier than those of its ancestor.

Now we are aiming to expand sampling in the southern provinces of China, such as in Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian, in countries of Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam, and further sampling in South Asia, including in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The comparison will produce a clear and easily applied method of detecting rice ecosystems through the type of rice plant and agriculture indicated.  There are several theories on when this took place, and this project will produce models that can clearly map out the evolution of rice plants from wild to domesticated, and the different methods of farming that created these changes.  

Phytoliths and Diatoms 


In order to produce these results we will be analysing seeds and the concentration of their appearance in the archaeological record.  Of significant use will be the analysis of silica remains of plants and algae known respectively as plytoliths and diatoms.  These remains withstand the decay normally affecting carbon based plant forms and form an important part of the archaeological record that can reveal the type of plants present and at what stage of domestication they have reached.  This in turn shows us what types of agriculture and rice ecosystem created physiological changes in the plant so that we can diagnostically pinpoint the evolution from wild to domesticated rice.


Once we have modeled rice domestication and the type of agriculture present we can look at the wider implications of field system typology.  Wet rice farming produces large quantities of methane, and a better understanding of how much wet rice cultivation in the past can contribute to a better understanding of the role of human activity in modifying the global environment in prehistory. Since Methane is a greenhouse gas, it has been proposed that rice cultivation from 3000 BC began to elevate methane levels and cause global warming. The data collected from this project and models created will allow us to test this hypothesis from archaeobotanical evidence from many other sites of prehistoric rice cultivators.  This may also allow us to address current climate change issues relating to rice farming, and develop new systems of how to balance crop production while lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Why it is Relevant:

Because rice is one of the world's great staple foods, and eaten regularly in Britain, especially by many of London's ethnic minorities, the origins and history of rice agriculture and its implication for past cultural modification of the environment is expected to be of great interest to the public at large.  It is therefore expected that this project will have great potential for developing outreach to the general public, especially including Asian minority groups, about the role of Science-Based archaeology in contributing to knowledge about the human past and human-environment interactions in the long term and especially in Asia. This research has great potential in education, especially in A-level courses, as the focus for projects in Geography, Biology or Archaeology.

Links to further Information:

  • PUBLICATIONS from  the rice project and those from selected partner projects
  • If you would like further reading and resources please click HERE
  • You can also follow recent rice archaeology on our archaeobotanist blog
  • For any other enquiries please see our project contacts HERE

Page last modified on 04 jun 13 21:08