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

Rice fields in Orissa

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.

Rice paddies, as artificial tropical wetlands, produce methane. Wet and irrigated field systems of rice may produce higher yields of grain but they also produce more methane than dry or rain fed rice. As a major non-industrial source of methane, rice has been postulated as a major contributing factor to a rise in global methane levels from after 5000 BP.

Spread of rice agriculture

We have recently produced the first quantitative model of the spread of wet rice agriculture and its likely contribution atmospheric methane levels alongside that of the spread of cattle herds. These first models have high levels of uncertainty due to the very sparse record of high quality archaeobotanical evidence for rice cultivation, and especially cultivation methods in southeast Asia (including northeast India and the southern provinces of China).

As dry rice systems are not expected to pro­duce much methane, and the recent high quality archaeobotanical data from a few sites in Thailand point to dry-farmed rice into the First Millennium BC, it is critical to gather more empirical data for refining models for the origins and extent of wet rice farming in prehistoric Southeast Asia, including the southern provinces of China for which equivalent data for rice cultivation methods is almost entirely lacking Because irrigated rices require a substantial capital labour investment in the creation and maintenance of field systems and irrigation, the development of such systems is also central to understanding regional social evolution.

  • Wet rice methane model
  • Lower Yangtze phytolith assemblage over time
  • Carbonised rice grain
  • Phytoliths from deep water rice in Thailand

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 [Early Rice Project]).

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 will now 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.

Related outputs

This is a new research project and details of related outputs will be made available in due course.

Dorian Fuller was one of two invited plenary speakers at the 7th Annual International Rice Genetics symposium, held in the Philippines in November 2013. Read more»

Background publications
  • Weisskopf, Alison, Emma Harvey, Eleanor Kingwell-Banham, Mukund Kajale, Rabi Mohanty and Dorian Q Fuller (2013) Archaeobotanical implications of phytolith assemblages from cultivated rice systems, wild rice stands and macro-regional patterns. Journal of Archaeological Science
  • Fuller, DQ (2011) Pathways to Asian Civilizations: Tracing the Origins and Spread of Rice and Rice Cultures. Rice 4(3-4): 78-92
  • Fuller, DQ and Alison R. Weisskopf (2011) The Early Rice Project: from Domestication to Global Warming. Archaeology International 13/14: 44-51
  • Fuller, DQ, van Etten, J., Manning, K., Castillo, C., Kingwell-Banham, E., Weisskopf, A., Qin, L., Sato, Y., Hijmans, R. (2011). The contribution of rice agriculture and livestock pastoralism to prehistoric methane levels An archaeological assessment. The Holocene 21, 743-759
  • Fuller, Dorian Q, Yo-Ichiro Sato, Cristina Castillo, Ling Qin, Alison R. Weisskopf, Eleanor J. Kingwell-Banham, Jixiang Song, Sung-Mo Ahn and Jacob van Etten (2010). Consilience of genetics and archaeobotany in the entangled history of rice (2010). Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 2 (2): 115-131
  • Castillo, Cristina and Dorian Q Fuller (2010). Still too fragmentary and dependent upon chance? Advances in the study of early Southeast Asian archaeobotany. In 50 Years of Archaeology in Southeast Asia: Essays in Honour of Ian Glover, ed. Bellina, B., Bacus, E. A., Pryce, O., & Weissman Christie, J. River Books, Bangkok/London. Pp. 91-111
NERC logo


  • NERC grant NE/K003402/1 (2013-16)

Project Investigators:

Project Researchers (UK):

Overseas Project Partners:

  • Ling Qin - Associate Professor of Neolithic Archaeology, Peking University
  • Xiaoyan Yang - Associate researcher, Inst. of Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing)
  • Barry Rolett - Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • Peter Bellwood - Professor of Archaeology at Australia National University
  • Rasmi Shoocongdej - Professor of Archaeology at Silapakorn University, Bangkok
  • Rabi Mohanty - Professor of Archaeology at Deccan College Pune
  • Jacob van Etten - Senior Research Associate at Bioversity International (Cali, Colombia), leading a CGIAR international research program on Agricultural Biodiversity for Climate Change adaptation


Further information:

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