Early Rice Project Aims

Understanding the development, diversification and spread of rice agriculture is central not only to our understanding of the processes of human population growth, dispersal and formation of civilizations in Asia, it is also central to reconstructing how past agricultural activities might have impacted global climate through methane emissions and deforestation.

The impact of evolving of rice systems from China to Southeast Asia. 

(NERC Grant NE/K0034021) Aims

Archaeobotanical evidence offers a powerful set of tools for not only documenting where and when rice was cultivated in the past, but how it was cultivated through the analysis of ecology of associated weed flora in macro-remains assemblages and phytolith assemblages. We have pioneered the study archaeological rice weed flora and the combination of archaeological plant macro-remains and phytoliths in our recent NERC-supported research in parts of India, Sri Lanka and China (NE/G005540/1). We propose to roll out this method over a wider geographical and cultural area, as well refining the approach through some additional modern analogues. Because current evidence already provides an empirical framework for the early development of rice cultivation systems in the Yangtze (especially the Lower Yangtze), between 5000 and 2000 BC, and a firm basis for the later intensification of rice agriculture in the plains of northern and eastern India (2000-500 BC), we propose to focus our work on the less known parts of Asia, especially mainland Southeast Asia and the southern parts of China, as well as further work in the eastern parts of India. These regions are central to hypotheses on the dispersal of rice cultivation, including models linking the spread of rice to major language families such as Austroasiatic and Austronesian,and yet a lack systematically-studied evidence for rice cultivation itself, or evidence as to whether early rice represented an extension of the alluvial wetland cultivation systems like those of the Neolithic Yangtze (early subspecies japonica, typical of many modern temperate japonica) or the development of upland rainfed systems (the latter typical of many modern tropical japonica rices), with a secondary later parallel evolution of irrigated wet rice systems amongst indica rices. It is also hypothesized that irrigated rice in mainland southeast Asia was a later introduced from Indian irrigated traditions different from the upland rice systems that had diffused from China in the Neolithic.

Our aims are therefore to:

  1. Reconstruct the earliest rice cultivation systems (Neolithic-Bronze Age) along the three hypothesized trajectories of rice diffusion southwards from the Yangtze basin towards southeast Asia, namely in Yunnan, Guangdong, and Fujian.
  2. To reconstruct rice cultivation across a range of subregions, environments and periods in mainland Southeast Asia (mainly in Thailand and Vietnam) to assess the extent to which rainfed and wet irrigated systems were practiced, and whether different regional patterns or a single evolutionary trajectory can be reconstructed.
  3. To test the validity of our existing analytical weed flora analogues, developing largely on our modern studies in India and to a lesser extent China, through additional analogue sampling in Southeastern Asia, including Thailand and Yunnan.
  4. On the basis of our reconstructed rice arable systems and weed flora assemblages to assess the likelihood of single or multiple pathways for the spread of rice into Southeast Asia, by analysing the geographical and chronological patterns of weed flora.
  5. To use our improved understanding of how rice was cultivated in different times and periods of southern China and Southeastern Asia to produce improved models of past wetland rice area and linked methane emissions over time, grounded in the empirical evidence for past rice cultivation.
  6. To use the archaeological history of rice and its varied forms of cultivation for a knowledge exchange and public engagement program on the importance of long-term history and science-based archaeology to understanding agriculture's role in human impact on the environment over the long-term (see pathways to impact plan). 


Page last modified on 04 jun 13 21:10