Sedentism, Territorial Circumscription, and the Increased Use of Plant Domesticates across Neolithic-Bronze Age Korea

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As evidenced from the Korean archaeological record, there is an increased use of plant domesticates and a decrease in other food sources during the Holocene. These changes in overall human diet breadth culminate with the Late Neolithic-Bronze Age (c. 3500 b.p.) transition where dependence on hunted and gathered food packages decreases during the former period and full-scale agriculture becomes the norm during the latter cultural stage. This dietary shift appears to coincide with Holocene shoreline stabilization and overall large-scale population increase and movement through time. It is proposed here that two primary reasons exist for the change in overall diet breadth: (1) increasing shoreline stabilization during the Holocene and (2) an increase in hunter-gatherer population pressure due to a sedentary lifestyle. Both of these factors would have led to some degree of territorial circumscription, resulting in a progressive decline in overall hunter-gatherer foraging efficiency. In turn, this would have prompted the Holocene Korean Peninsular peoples to find other ways to offset their lowered overall foraging efficiency that had originally focused primarily on higher-ranked food resources (e.g., deer, wild boar). In this case, Korean peoples expanded their overall diet breadth to include a lower-ranked set of food packages (e.g., fish, shellfish) that by the advent of the Bronze Age eventually included plant domesticates regularly. Keywords: East Asia, Korea, spread of agriculture, diet breadth contingency model, zooarchaeology.

It is clear that the origins and spread of agriculture from several core regions around the world had a pronounced effect on our planet, and this phenomenon is considered to be one of the most fundamental economic changes in our collective human history. Why this economic transition occurred is still a subject of great debate. Comprehensive edited texts covering this subject and published just in the last decade or so alone include the following: Cowan and Watson 1992; Gebauer and Price 1992; Harris 1996; Price and Gebauer 1995 (see Smith 1998, 2001 for a recent comprehensive review of the subject). Nevertheless, few of these edited volumes include studies from East Asia and more specifically Korea. This essay adds the Korean Holocene record to the discussion that attempts to address the processual "why" plant domesticates spread across Eurasia. (1)

In East Asia, ample archaeological evidence exists that suggests that the origins of millet and rice agriculture occurred in two separate locations. Evidence of foxtail millet (Setaria italica) agriculture first appears in the archaeological record in northern China between 9000 and 8000 years b.p. at Cishan and Cha-hai. Northeast Asia, with a cool and dry climate, was and is much better suited for millet cultivation. Rice (Oryza sativa) production appears slightly later in southern-central China at the site of Hemudu near Lake Taiku in the Lower Yangzi Valley between 7000 and 5900 years b.p. Southeast and South Asia, with its hot and humid climate, was and is an ideal region for rice to grow. In fact, wild rice (O. rufipogon) has been known to grow in monsoon Asia from the Himalayas to the Malay Peninsula and even as far north as the Yangzi River (S. M. An 1991, 2004; K. C. Chang 1986; T. T. Chang 1976, 1983; Crawford 1992; Crawford and Chen 1998; Glover and Higham 1996; Heu 1991; Higham 1995; Higham and Lu 1998; Ho 1977; Smith 1998; Zhao 1998).

It is currently accepted that Korea was a secondary region for agricultural origins. That is, rice and millet domestication originated in China and later spread across the Korean Peninsula (S. M. An 2004; Choe 1982; Crawford and Lee 2003; W. Y. Kim 1986). In this essay, it will be proposed that a number of underlying influences were present during the Holocene in Korea that prompted the transition from a diet that relied primarily on hunting and gathering during the Neolithic to one where full-scale agriculture became the norm during the Bronze Age. …


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