The Occurrence of Cereal Cultivation in China

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This paper examines the progress and remaining problems on the occurrence of cereal cultivation in China, which led to agriculture, and discusses some related theoretical issues. Based on currently available data, it is argued that the occurrence of cereal cultivation in China was associated with and related to the climatic and environmental changes after the last glacial epoch, the occurrence of new technology, including the manufacturing of pottery, and the adoption of a broad-spectrum subsistence strategy, whereas sedentism does not seem to be a prerequisite for this cultural change. The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture in China seems to have been a gradual process, and foraging remained a subsistence strategy of the early farmers. The occurrence of cereal cultivation in China differed from that in other core areas, demonstrating the diversity of human cultures and contributing to our understanding of the origin and development of agriculture in the world. Keywords: foraging to farming, cereal cultivation, prehistory, China.


Nearly eighty years have elapsed since Swedish scholar J. G. Andersson discovered a piece of rice husk on a Yangshao potsherd found in the middle Yellow River Valley in 1927 (Andersson 1929). Today, many scholars agree that China (1) is one of the centers for an indigenous origin of agriculture, with broomcorn and foxtail millets and rice being the major domesticated crops (e.g., Crawford 2005; Diamond and Bellwood 2003; Higham 1995; Smith 1995) and dog and pig as the primary animal domesticates (Yuan 2001). It is not clear whether chicken and water buffalo were also indigenously domesticated in China (Liu 2004; Yuan 2001).

The origin of agriculture in China by no later than 9000 years ago is an important issue in prehistoric archaeology. Agriculture is the foundation of Chinese civilization. Further, the expansion of agriculture in Asia might have related to the origin and dispersal of the Austronesian and Austroasiatic speakers (e.g., Bellwood 2005; Diamond and Bellwood 2003; Glover and Higham 1995; Tsang 2005). Thus the issue is essential for our understanding of Asian and Pacific prehistory and the origins of agriculture in the world.

Many scholars have discussed various aspects regarding the origin of agriculture in China, particularly after the 1960s (e.g., Bellwood 1996, 2005; Bellwood and Renfrew 2003; Chen 1991; Chinese Academy of Agronomy 1986; Crawford 1992, 2005; Crawford and Shen 1998; Flannery 1973; Higham 1995; Higham and Lu 1998; Ho 1969; Li and Lu 1981; Lu 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002; MacNeish et al. 1998; Smith 1995; Sun et al. 2001, 2002; Tao 1994; Wang et al. 1998; Yan 1992). This paper will focus on the occurrence of cereal cultivation in North China and the Yangzi (Yangtze) River Valley, which resulted in the origin of agriculture in both areas.

According to Price and Gebauer (1995: 6), "Cultivation ... is a cultural phenomenon that involves intentionally preparing fields, sowing, harvesting, and storing seeds or other plant parts," and is an essential part of agriculture. They further argue that sedentism, population, resource abundance, and social changes were important factors in the transition from foraging to farming in many parts of the world. Based on current archaeological and experimental findings, this paper will examine the aforementioned important factors, as well as the similarities and differences in terms of the occurrence of cereal cultivation in China and in other core areas of agricultural origin elsewhere. It will be argued that the transition from foraging to farming in China might have differed from those in the Middle East and Mesoamerica, particularly in terms of sedentism, social structure, population density, and the occurrence of pottery.

To date, studies on this issue have been focusing on when and where cultivation began in China, and what has been domesticated. …