The Emergence of Agriculture in Southern China

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The Yangtze Valley in central China is widely regarded by archaeologists, palaeobotanists and plant geneticists as the location of the earliest cultivation of Asian rice (Oryza sativa var. japonica) (Crawford &Chen 1998; Higham & Lu 1998; Zhao 1998; Bellwood 2005:111; Jiang & Liu 2006; Londo et al. 2006; Fuller et al. 2007, 2009). A previous article (Zhang & Hung 2008a) outlined Neolithic cultural developments related to the establishment of food production in the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley from 10 000 to 2000 BC (14C-calibrated chronology). The Pengtoushan-Zaoshi and Shangshan-Kuahuqiao phases (8000-5000 BC), in the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley respectively, have provided evidence for very early pre-domestication rice production, possible pig domestication (Yuan et al. 2008), and pottery spindle whorls that imply utilisation of plant fibres. Considerable quantities of rice husk and grains have been recovered from these sites. After 5000 BC, farming settlements associated with the pivotal Daxi, Shinianshan, Beiyinyangin-Xuejiagang, Hemudu and Majiabang-Songze site complexes (5000-3500 BC) spread gradually throughout the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley. Enclosed rice fields have been exposed in some Lower Yangtze Majiabang-Songze sites, such as Caoxieshan (Zou et al. 2000:97-113). Later in time, the two Longshan-phase site complexes represented by Qujialing-Shijiahe and Liangzhu (30002300 BC), in the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley respectively, saw the establishment of large-scale wet rice cultivation (Fuller et al. 2007).

It has been suggested that the southward dispersal of rice agriculture from the Yangtze Valley was perhaps related to the expansions of Austroasiatic- and Austronesian-speaking populations into Mainland and Island Southeast Asia respectively (e.g. Higham & Lu 1998; Higham 2002; Diamond & Bellwood 2003; Bellwood 2005: 222). If so, then southern China, between the Yangtze Basin and northern Mainland Southeast Asia, must have played a significant role in the spread of rice farming. However, due to the rarity of reported rice remains and reliable 14C dates, the question of agricultural development in southern China proper, south of the Yangtze Basin, remains poorly understood. We have previously suggested (Zhang & Hung 2008a) that the process of agricultural dispersal in China was not a singular event. To illustrate this, we focus here on recent discoveries from the regions of Lingnan-Fujian-Taiwan (Lingnan includes the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong) and south-west China (Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces).

Coastal south-eastern China and Taiwan

New evidence for ancient rice cultivation has been reported from south-eastern China, with the oldest sites in Fujian, Taiwan and Guangdong (Figure 1). Here, rice remains can be confidently dated to 3000 BC, whereas dates for many other sites are clustered around 2500 BC.

Guangdong (Figure 1, sites 5, 6, 7 and 8)

In the 1970s, a large quantity of rice grains and stalks from the lower and middle layers at Shixia in northern Guangdong (c. 2600-2300 BC) were claimed to be of cultivated rice (Yang 1978; Zhang et al. 2006). More recently, four new discoveries of older rice remains have occurred in Guangdong. These come from the pre-Shixia phase at Shixia itself (Yang 1998; Xiang 2005), from Shaxia in Hong Kong, from Guye in Gaoming on the Lower Xi River, and from Xinghuahe on the Upper Xi River (Table 1).

There are varied opinions on the date of the oldest rice remains at Shixia. The Guangdong Institute of Archaeology (IA, Guangdong 2000) suggests a date contemporary with the Tangjiagang-Daxi phase in the Middle Yangtze, c. 4800 BC, and with the earliest Xiantouling phase, c. 5000-3500/3000 BC, in the Zhu (Pearl) Estuary. But the pre-Shixia phase lacks the painted pottery typical of early Xiantouling, and so may be contemporary with Caotangwan phase I in Guangdong and Shenwan (Sham Wan) layer F on Lamma Island in Hong Kong (Meacham 1978; Zhuhai Museum et al. …