Notes on New Advancements and Revelations in the Agricultural Archaeology of Early Rice Domestication in the Dongting Lake Region

By Anping, Pei | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Notes on New Advancements and Revelations in the Agricultural Archaeology of Early Rice Domestication in the Dongting Lake Region


Anping, Pei, Antiquity


The Liyang plain, located in the northwest of Hunan province, is part of the plain on the north of Dongting Lake. It is situated at longitude 111 [degrees]22[minutes]30[seconds]E to 111 [degrees]51[minutes]30[seconds]E, and latitude 29[degrees]35[minutes]31[seconds]N to 29 [degrees]47[minutes]30[seconds]N. It is made up of the Li River, its tributaries and the alluvial plain, and occupies about 600 sq. km in area [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

The plain is saucer-shaped and surrounded by small hills on three sides, joined at the eastern part to the plain north of Dongting Lake. The area is a classic 'plate-basin' structure. Inside its boundaries, the land is broad and flat, with small streams winding in different directions, and lakes and ponds dotting the landscape. It is 32-45 m above sea level, with an incline of 2 [degrees] to 3 [degrees].

The climate of the plain is a mid- to northern-subtropical monsoon climate, with obvious continental characteristics. It has abundant rainfall, plenty of sunshine, warmth, and humidity. The average annual temperature is over 16.5 [degrees] centigrade. The spring, summer, and autumn together last longer than eight months. The average annual amount of sunshine is 1770 hours, and the annual precipitation is 11001300 mm [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].

Archaeological studies in the region indicate unusually favourable geographical and environmental conditions for human life over a long period, and high levels of cultural activity.

In 1988, the archaeological site at Pengtoushan in Lixian (prefecture) in the Liyang plain was discovered, dating from about 9000 years ago. At the time of discovery the site contained the earliest indications of rice domestication in the world, arousing great interest and attention from world archaeologists and agricultural scientists.

Since then, another site has been excavated in Bashidang, Lixian, which has also yielded important finds towards our understanding of the origins of rice culture and its development in the Dongting Lake region.

This site has two stratigraphic layers representing two time periods: early and later. The upper site is dated from about 8000 years ago and covers an area of over 30,000 sq. m. It is like the Pengtoushan site only 20 km distant, and also belongs to the 'Pengtoushan culture' [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

Six more excavations in Bashidang between 1993 and 1997 have revealed the earliest evidence of the Neolithic in China, including village defence ditches and walled fortresses. An unexpected discovery, dating from the same period, was mud from the edge of an ancient riverbed containing samples of organic matter that were very rich and complete [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED], including rice kernels with and without the husk [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 4-6 OMITTED] and many animal and plant remains.

Since the late 1970s excavations at the site of Hemudu in Zhejiang (dated from 7000 BP) have yielded evidence for rice domestication, and the academic world has had to revise its views of rice domestication in China. The current theories claim that the centre of rice domestication was in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. However, the discovery made at the Pengtoushan site called this into question. First, it proved that the origin of rice domestication and its practice are two different phenomena. Whilst the Hemudu and Pengtoushan sites showed signs that the practice and development of rice domestication was already developed, this did not necessarily prove that the practice originated in there. Second, it raises the possibility of independent rice domestication and the likelihood that there may have been multiple places of origin. Importantly, the new sites show that the middle reaches of the Yangtze also constituted a centre for rice domestication. At Pengtoushan one contentious source of rice grains and husks is fired clay used to make pottery.

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